Update on Black Farmers: Dogged Advocacy Needed, Regardless of Who’s President

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In January 2008, the Cohen Report wrote about the Pigford litigation that had attempted, with limited effect, to redress the historic discrimination of the U.S. Department of Agriculture toward black farmers.  In “Still Fighting the Last Plantation,” we took note of the principled support of then Illinois Senator Barack Obama and Iowa Republican Charles Grassley calling for an extension of the time period and some flexibility in consideration of the applications of black farmers for Pigford settlement benefits.

We also described some of the nonprofits that were engaged in fighting for black farmers rights, including the National Black Farmers Association, headed by one John Boyd.  The June 21, 2009 Washington Post just did a front-page profile of Boyd, who has not dropped this fight one iota.  Since becoming president, Barack Obama’s first proposed federal budget included $1.25 billion as money to settle the claims of some 70,000 black farmers who contend that they either didn’t know about the original $1 billion settlement in 1999 or had been otherwise unfairly excluded (as a black farmer in Virginia, Boyd himself was among the 16,000 farmers who got something, in his case, $50,000, in the original Pigford settlement).  According to Boyd, the $1.25 billion is $1.25 billion too little.

The article described the National Black Farmers Association as pretty much Boyd himself (he calls himself the staff of the Association, which is located in a room in his farmhouse). Accompanied by a retired government worker who has helped black farmers file necessary paperwork to qualify for Pigford claims, Boyd meets with White House and Congressional staff, makes his case, and apparently indefatigably continues what appears to be a lonely and frustrating quest. Why? As one admirer put it, “John is all the black farmers have, and he knows he is all they have.”

This is a story of advocacy on behalf of some of the most disadvantaged and disenfranchised people in the nation. Sometimes seemingly frustrated with the entire process, Boyd has had his ups and downs, but still hangs in walking the halls of Congress getting 15-minute meetings with Congressional aides who tell him to keep writing letters. But the results are a good example of how difficult advocacy is for the constituencies that don’t have big money behind them.

According to an Associated Press story from April 2009, President Obama was apparently thinking about the Pigford case differently than Senator Obama had.  Although the Obama legislation to extend the settlements was passed, Congress set a cap of $100 million on the total payments.  In the continuing court struggles, the Obama Administration contended that the current number of claims (according to AP, around 25,000) should be limited to roughly proportional shares of the $100 million, coming out to $2,000 or $3,000 per black farmer claimant, as opposed to the $50,000 plus $12,500 in tax breaks that Boyd contends the legislation intended.

Obviously, the President’s formal budget proposal far surpassed the cap imposed by Congress, but Boyd believes even that is insufficient.  In the AP article, Boyd called the Administration’s original proposal “insulting,” and observed, “You can’t blame it on the Bush Administration anymore. I can’t figure out for the life of me why the president wouldn’t want to implement a bill that he fought for as a U.S. senator.”

Give Boyd credit, because he is doing what the advocates for the dispossessed always do, he is scrapping and fighting while many others have gone on to other issues and venues.  In a recent story about the Congressional Black Caucus complaining about the Obama Administration’s retreat on black farmers (the CBC contention was that the $100 million was intended to be a “downpayment” on the ultimate settlement, not a cap as the Justice Department lawyers argued in court), the only advocate mentioned was Boyd.

Once again, it is Iowa Republican Charles Grassley, whose state contains no black farmers, much less black farmers entitled to Pigford settlements, who has introduced legislation, S.972 (cosponsored by North Carolina Democrat Kay Hagan, whose state contains 4,000 black farmers) to ensure that black farmer claimants are paid in full (the Justice Department suggests that the total, if all claimants were approved, would be $4 billion). A Wilmington Journal article quotes both Boyd and Ralph Paige of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund, another of the handful of advocacy organizations fighting for black farmers’ rights profiled in the original 2008 Cohen Report article, applauding the Grassley bill and indications that the Obama budget, in contrast to the position of Justice Department lawyers, would dump the $100 million “cap.”

Nonprofits and funders have to remember that much of the most important advocacy that needs to be done gets minimal financial support and even less public attention.  Observers might have problems with some of the advocacy stances Boyd and others have taken in their decades-long struggle to get Agriculture to correct part of its long history of discrimination.  But one can only admire what people like Boyd represent to the nonprofit sector:  by virtue of their dogged pursuit of social justice, they constitute part of the nonprofit sector’s collective conscience.