Shame on The New York Times for the bias that was so evident in last week's front page story titled "Federal Spigot Flows as Farmers Claim Bias." It clearly implied that even meager restitution was underserved and we were unworthy plaintiffs, although we successfully proved racial discrimination in federal farm loan practices.
The headline was an immediate giveaway, (no pun intended) that this story intended to make a case against legally won payments to offset generations of injustice in federal farm loan practices. Then, early in the story the reporter writes, "What is more, some protested, the template for the deal-the $50,000 payouts to black farmers-had proved a magnet for fraud." Was the purpose of this observation to challenge our hard fought case and support a different outcome? Did it aim to doubly penalize those of us the court found had been wronged -- for generations?
Alarmingly, this reporter interviewed career USDA lawyers and career senior employees for her story, in effect asking the opposition if they agreed with a judgment against them. This amounts to letting the fox watch the henhouse. The very same people I and other black farmers have been combating in our decades-long quest for restitution now are asked to validate claims they resisted so long and hard. Did the Times consider them its most credible sources on this subject?
Most galling is the insult perpetrated by The New York Times in publishing such an article with the tone and language that casually or deliberately casts aspersions on farmers whose ancestors largely built the United States economy as enslaved laborers. Consider the pittance finally awarded 21st-century black farmers for years of injustice we endured as free Americans, compared to the incalculable wealth forced and beaten out of ancestors who worked until death the same lands where we now strive. Are we not due, at last, even simple respect?
I have spent all of my adult life fighting the terrible injustices done to black and other minority farmers across the country. In 1984, when I bought my first farm in Southside Virginia it came with a warning from the seller, Mr. Russell Sallie, an aging black farmer in the community. When I asked his advice on obtaining a farm operating loan Mr. Sallie said the Farmers Home Administration had good programs, but "good luck getting anywhere with them folks! They treat black folks worse than the dirt on the ground."
He was right. In the purest spirit of Jim Crow, the local USDA office set aside one day a week to consider black farmers as loan applicants. We named it Black Wednesday. I took my case to CBS News correspondent Ed Bradley. He came south and investigated for 60 Minutes. When Mr. Bradley caught up with the USDA official who had repeatedly denied me loans, that employee of the United States government admitted that he was known to leave black farmers waiting for service while he napped in his office. He made light of the offense, saying he was not asleep, just snoozing. This same miscreant often left the door of his office open on Black Wednesday, so that waiting applicants could hear his degrading way of addressing their cohorts. He commonly refused to use our names, calling black farmers "Boy."
My numerous complaints against the USDA's county supervisor were investigated by the federal Office of Civil Rights, resulting in a 14-page finding of discrimination. At that time, there was no process to compensate black farmers who were discriminated against by USDA. The department claimed the statute of limitations had expired on our claims. Our only option was to lobby Congress to remove that expiration date so we could seek justice. With help from the Congressional Black Caucus, and Senator Charles Robb of Virginia, the statute of limitations was changed and my case became the first to be settled by the administrative process at USDA.
The county supervisor was found guilty of discriminating against me and many other black farmers in the area, but he kept his job. The discrimination was well documented; I had been denied a farm operating loan every year for nine years. This same tax-paid supervisor readily admitted to the investigating officer that, yes, he did he have a problem with making loans to black farmers, because they were "lazy, and looking for a paycheck on Friday." He acknowledged to the investigator that he did indeed spit on me, but only because he missed the spit can on his desk. He did not deny ripping up my farm loan application and throwing it in the trash can, in front of me. He said he "was not going to lend John Boyd any of his money."
The Times may lightly suggest that fraud was common in payments to mistreated black farmers, but to me the real perfidy, the only wrong that matters was the behavior of this public servant who all but ruined my early adult life. He threatened to put my farm in federal inventory and give it to another farmer on the county's committee for USDA. He said he would reduce me to milking cows for a local white farmer friend of his. No evidence has been discovered of white farmers who were systematically abused this way.
Since the 1990s when I and four other original members founded the National Black Farmers Association, we have grown to more than 109,000 members in 42 states. We filed many lawsuits seeking fairness in southern states and failed. When I sought help from some of the best legal minds, including the late Johnnie Cochran and Willie Gary, none would represent us against the federal government. Al Pires was the lawyer who took up the black farmers' cause. We won a first round in federal court on Jan. 5, 1999.
On Dec. 17, 1997, President Bill Clinton granted me a meeting which set the tone for the black farmer settlement, the meeting included members of his cabinet, including Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman. The president vowed to settle the case without further litigation. I was not simply in attendance at that meeting as the Times reported. It was my meeting, initiated by me and arranged by Ben Johnson, special assistant to the president, and Bob Nash, the administration's personnel director.
The black farmers' movement paved the way for other historic discrimination lawsuits and settlements. Through the years 2000 to 2008 I lived a split life as a farmer and lobbyist for redress for 80,000 black farmers who missed the filing deadline. It was hard, long and at times lonely battle. Many of the advocates had given up hope that Congress ever would pass a bill to compensate the black farmers. I used what tools I had to get the story out there. I rode my mules 280 miles to Washington to highlight the issue and the NBFA helped protest around the county. Many black farmers died waiting for justice. I spoke at many funerals some even televised on CNN and other networks. Stalwarts such as John Bonner, a faithful soldier in the movement, and Dick Morgan both died waiting for justice. I wonder what they would think of being labeled as frauds by one of the nation's leading national publications.
The Times suggested that Congress just readily passed a bill for black farmers' benefit. No hint was given of the length and depth of our struggle. It takes little insight to recognize that Congress has never compensated black people without "proof" or struggle. We had the concession of then Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman, plus more than 100 reports to address the discrimination black farmers faced, from USDA Civil Rights Action Team Report (CRAT). In addition, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and the National Black Farmers Association (NBFA) report, Obstruction of Justice, detailed the terrible wrongs against black farmers.
As I struggled for our cause on Capitol Hill, we got the terrible news that Senator Ted Kennedy was ill, leaving us with no Senate champion for the black farmers' bill. Then I met Senator Barack Obama in the halls. He granted a lengthy meeting and to be the lead sponsor. Within days of his support, Senator Joe Biden agreed to co-sponsor. The measure passed within the Farm Bill, setting up a new cause of action for black farmers to have their cases heard on merit and $100 million. It was never easy, and there was no blanket settlement.
I and other civil rights leaders worked to help elect President Obama. It is disturbing to hear critics say that he is not doing enough to help black Americans and other minorities. The best counter argument to me is the black farmers' bill, eventually bringing a $1.25 billion settlement, another $3.4 billion in the Native American farmers' case against the Department of the Interior, and an additional $1.3 billion addressing injustices against women and Hispanic farmers. What is more disturbing is the black farmers' bill was settled by the Obama Administration approved by the Department of Justice, has court oversight, anti-fraud language that was added to the bill, and Inspector General oversight, even with all the oversight the black farmers are referred to as fraud cases.
All these settlements happened at the direction of President Obama. Attorney General Eric Holder, Deputy Attorney General Tony West and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack played vital roles in the resolution of all the settlements, each one built on many meetings with myself and the NBFA.
The New York Times article is a lame shot at those who cannot defend themselves. Insinuating that the black farmers' case seeded, encouraged, or inspired fraud is a low blow. The fact is three years after the president signed the black farmers' bill, many of them have yet to receive any of the $1.25 billion owed them. Where is that in the Times story?
In short, this one time -- not just me but other civil rights advocates -- should speak out, The president and his administration were right to settle all the cases. They were all decades old. For me the Times is a dollar short and a long time late. Truth demands recognition and acknowledgement that justice prevailed. The man with the mule won the case!