The discussion at my Thanksgiving table was different this year, just days after the Senate took the historic step of unanimously passing the funding to finally resolve the decades-old Black farmers discrimination case.
For each of the past 10 years since the landmark civil rights case settlement between the Black farmers and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the topic of conversation around my Thanksgiving table inevitably got around to the delay in justice for Black farmers. Not a week went by during these past 10 years that I did not receive a phone call from one of the thousands of Black farmers across the nation who never had their case resolved.
For over a decade many African Americans who farmed or attempted to farm - and who sought federal loans or other farming support through U.S. Department of Agriculture programs - never received an opportunity for their discrimination claims to be determined on their merits.
Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has said, "Black farmers throughout the country unfortunately faced discrimination in past decades when trying to obtain services from USDA."
And anyone who objectively examines the facts is compelled to reach the same conclusion.
The Court found in 1999 that Black farmers were driven from the farming profession and their property, noting that census data at the time found the number of African American farms had dropped from over 900,000 in 1920 to about 18,000. Discrimination took an enormous toll. The 1999 settlement sought to address grievances not only from black farmers, but, "All African American farmers who farmed, or attempted to farm, between January 1, 1981 and December 31, 1996". That is a period of 15 years.
I have been fighting for black farmers and those with a dream of farming for 26 years, since long before the settlement. During this period starting with discrimination I faced at the hands of the Department of Agriculture, to the mule and tractor rides throughout the streets of Washington, D.C., I have fought for one thing: justice for the black farmers.
On my farm in Virginia, we have a saying, "Don't tell me how hard you work, show me." I have learned the same applies in Washington, DC with politicians -- don't tell the farmers how much you support them, show them. Last week the Senate did just that, all 100 Senators, Democratic and Republican alike gave the black farmers the one thing they had petitioned for: the opportunity to have their claims heard on their merits.
The 2008 Farm Bill included Section 14012, which gave blacks who farmed or attempted to farm the opportunity to finally have their claims determined their merits -- in fact, the section is titled, "Determination on Merits of Pigford Claims." Inclusion of this language enjoyed broad bipartisan support. In fact, the Farm Bill passed with a margin so great that then-President Bush could not veto it. Senators and Representatives from Democrats to Tea-Party members voted for the bill, as it was the right thing to do.
The problem was that the Black farmers measure in the Farm Bill was inadequately funded, as approximately 30,000 individual claimants and estates of farmers who have died have filed suit in Federal Court under Section 14012.
Congress needed to act once more, and some two and a half years later, just last week, the Senate acted.
What I saw last week was more than the legislative process in action, it was elected officials standing as one, setting aside differences to do what was right. While the Senate's action was significant, the important role of the President, who has steadfastly supported the rights of all Americans, cannot be overstated. Though at times frustration and impatience got the best of me, I took comfort in knowing that the President knew black farmers had "long-ignored claims," and this was an injustice in need of "swift resolution."
Though it was not always obvious in the public eye, the White House along, with Senator Harry Reid and Republican leadership including Senator Chuck Grassley a long time friend of the farmers, was actively engaged in working through the details of the landmark legislation, the Claims Resolution Act of 2010.
The process was described by Senator Reid, who said, "The agreement that we reached shows what can happen when Democrats and Republicans come together to do the right thing."
The Bill does many things, but among the things I am most pleased with are the three major facets of anti-fraud provisions, above and beyond the already significant oversight of the Court. The Claims Resolution Act of 2010 provides that if the Neutral Adjudicator suspects fraud regarding the claim, additional documentation and evidence must be presented by the farmer. Further, the Government Accountability Office is tasked with evaluating the internal controls, and reporting to the Congress at least 2 times throughout the duration of the claims process, and finally the USDA Inspector General is required to perform a performance audit based on a statistical sampling of adjudicated claims. The results of this audit are to be reported to the Secretary of Agriculture and the Attorney General.
No farmer I have spoken with fears any of these provisions -- the discrimination and lack of opportunity was real, and no amount of "fraud control" will change that.
In the end, the legislation allows black farmers and people who attempted to farm, and who filed under the Pigford process, an opportunity to be compensated for discrimination suffered at the hands of their own government.
Farmers have died waiting for the justice -- the loss is as real as it gets. As the House of Representatives returns from the Thanksgiving break, I call on the House to make the Claims Resolution Act of 2010 among the first action items on the schedule this week.
It was best summed up by Republican Congressman and Speaker of the House-elect, John Boehner who said, "This issue has gone on for almost the 20 years that I've been here, and it needs to be resolved."
Indeed it does.
John W. Boyd, Jr. is founder and president of the National Black Farmers Association. Boyd is farmer from Baskerville, Virginia.