Nonprofit Advocacy and Today’s Civil Rights: Justice for Black Farmers

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john boydThe Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s headline said it in a nutshell: Time Runs out on Black Farmers. Congress just left town for a two-week recess. They failed to appropriate money to pay for the Pigford settlement of reparations for black farmers, breaking a promise that Congress would appropriate the necessary funds by March 31st.

Is the game over for black farmers? Not according to activists like Ralph Paige of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund and John Boyd of the National Black Farmers Association. Boyd told the Nonprofit Quarterly, “I’m at the point where no is not an option.”

What happened? March 31st was the deadline for Congress to appropriate $1.25 billion that President Obama had committed to settle—or re-settle—the landmark class action suit, Pigford v. Glickman, which had promised black farmers reparations from decade upon decade of denials of what farmers need most—operating loans, price support loans, farm ownership loans and grant assistance from the Department of Agriculture. A previous settlement of the case in 1999 was structured and administered so poorly that more than three-fourths of claimants, tens of thousands of black farmers, were left without even an opportunity to file for benefits.

As a senator and later presidential candidate, Obama had committed to reopening the Pigford settlement and making it work with new rules and money for the thousands of farmers who had been denied assistance the first time around.

The Obama Administration’s 2008 Agriculture budget pledged a measly $100 million for the case in contrast to the $2.5 billion claimed by the plaintiffs. The advocacy of organizations such as the Federation of Southern Cooperatives and the National Black Farmers Association kept the issue alive, leading the Obama Administration in early 2010 to agree to settle the Pigford case for $1.25 billion.

A huge civil rights victory? Almost, but not quite. The agreement needed Congress to appropriate the remaining $1.15 billion by March 31st after which the agreement with the Obama Administration would expire and the plaintiffs could vacate the agreement. But Congress didn’t do it before it decamped for vacation. Boyd called the inaction “more of the same” for black farmers: “We’re told, ‘It’s okay to continue to wait. You guys just wait and do nothing while members of Congress go home on vacation.” He didn’t give President Obama a pass for failing to press Congress to act: “The president made a strong commitment to show leadership to get this done, and basically we haven’t seen him show that leadership”.

What will happen now? Clearly, the advocacy of the NFBA’s John Boyd and the FSC’s Ralph Paige has to be redoubled.

A representative of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives told the Nonprofit Quarterly in an email, “The Federation will continue to talk with Congressional representatives—particularly the leadership such as James Clyburn—and the USDA about seeking the necessary funds for the settlement. …We know that the leadership wants this and USDA also wants to get this behind them.” Boyd’s statement to the Nonprofit Quarterly was similar: “I personally will remain visible on the Hill. I have personal relationships I have built over the years from with members of congress.”

It won’t be easy. The President and Congress are increasingly concerned about freezing expenditures and reducing the burgeoning deficit. The easiest course for the President would be to declare the Pigford settlement an emergency, which would circumvent Congressional “Pay-Go” rules. It would still require Congress to make the appropriation, but it wouldn’t have to find offsetting revenues or cuts as Pay-Go requires. Or, if the President doesn’t want to bypass Pay-Go, he could identify for Congress the offsetting revenues or cuts, but according to Boyd, he hasn’t done that.

So the case has to get to the President. Boyd told the Nonprofit Quarterly that “President Obama said…if there was problem in his administration that the buck stops with him. Well his administration entered into a settlement with the black farmers and did not live up to its commitment.” Members of Congress are not going to appropriate a billion for black farmers and cut a corresponding billion from other programs without strong leadership from the President.

Boyd points out that the black farmers have had the support of Republican Senator Charles Grassley, who was Obama’s ally on behalf of black farmers when Obama was in the Senate, but notes “I would like to see [Senate Majority] Leader [Harry] Reid and Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi take the lead and move the appropriation.”

What will it take to get the White House and Capitol Hill to refocus on the black farmers after the recess? Redoubled mobilization and advocacy. Advocacy of this sort takes the kind of persistence that Paige and Boyd have shown. Boyd talks about 94,000 supporters in 42 states engaged in support of the Pigford case. Co-signers of a Federation of Southern Cooperatives letter to Reid and Pelosi included organizational allies such as the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association, the Mississippi Family Farmers Association Project, the Rural Advancement Fund, and United Farmers USA.

But organizing and advocacy take resources. Who’s supporting this work in the philanthropic arena? Boyd credited the Ford Foundation, which funded a report [PDF] in 2004 that revealed that the USDA had “willfully obstructed justice” and “deliberately undermined” the Pigford settlement in denying 90 percent of Pigford claims. But current support from U.S. foundations for black farmers advocacy is hard to find. This is civil rights advocacy, a moment in history calling on philanthropy to stand with social change. It is a time for philanthropy to show its cards on behalf of real change.

The resolution of the Pigford impasse will affect more than black farmers. Native American farmers are watching the Pigford case for its precedential value. They filed a Pigford-style case against the USDA in 1999 called Keepseagle v. Vilsack, but have been watching the Pigford settlement to see whether their case might be dealt with comparably. If the President and Congress fail to do right by black farmers, it will be a damaging blow to the Native American farmers and ranchers who suffered the same kind of discrimination in loans and grants at the hands of USDA bureaucrats. The Keepseagle plaintiffs have an April 21st deadline to reach an agreement with Agriculture else they head back to more court proceedings, potentially hampered by Congressional inaction on Pigford.

Agriculture Secretary Vilsack issued a two-paragraph statement reaffirming the Obama Administration’s commitment to making the Pigford II settlement happen, but it was short on details (). It’s not clear if the President will call it an emergency appropriation to get past Pay-Go. Nor is it clear that the Administration has identified the offsetting new revenues and program cuts. And what is the timetable? The lack of answers is disappointing to Pigford advocates who accepted the $1.25 billion settlement agreement instead of the $2.5 billion on the theory that the settlement get money quickly to black farmers whose numbers are dwindling.

What will it take to get the foundation and nonprofit sectors to rally behind the black farmers settlement? Maybe they might hear what John Boyd told the Nonprofit Quarterly in an e-mail: “I have worked on this issue since 1984. I have a burning desire to finish the job . . . The black farmers have been through a lot we are a forgotten gem in this country. We deserve the settlement. It will not bring back our farmers but it will provide funds for planting season. Thousands have died waiting for justice. We need the President to step and deliver the final step to bringing justice for black farmers. No more waiting!”