The subtext of film The Great Debaters was the dual life of the character played by Denzel Washington, by day a professor at Wiley College in Texas coaching the debate team, by night an organizer for the Southern Tenant Farmers Union, established during the Great Depression to help black—and white—farmers. Fast forward to today, the plight of black farmers is still an issue in the wake of the landmark but unfulfilled class action lawsuit, Pigford v. Glickman, [i ]but it is not on the public’s radar screen—nor of national politicians, except for that of Barack Obama.

Give Obama credit. Unlike his peers running for President from both parties, Obama stood in Iowa, hardly a population epicenter for black farmers, and forcefully endorsed legislation in Congress that would give black farmers another chance to benefit from the Pigford settlement, meant to redress decade upon decade of the Department of Agriculture’s shortchanging of black farmers regarding farm subsidies made liberally available to their non-minority farming counterparts.

The Pigford case hasn’t been raised, as far as we know, as a critical issue on the stump or in the debates, so it is unlikely that Obama’s vocal position on the legislation is to pander to a latent black farmer vote in the caucuses. But Pigford is one of the landmark civil rights cases that merits more recognition in the nonprofit sector and more active support from the foundation world.

To be fair, Obama doesn’t appear to have discovered Pigford in isolation. Throughout the past year or two, Obama was actively encouraged by Alabama Congressman Artur Davis to take a stand and make it an issue. Obama had previously endorsed a bill, introduced by Iowa’s Republican Senator, Charles Grassley (who until last year chaired the Senate Finance Committee in its oversight of nonprofit sector performance and impacts), to extend the opportunity for aggrieved farmers to apply for Pigford settlement benefits. This past August, he introduced a new bill in the Senate, a companion to a bipartisan House bill introduced by John Conyers and cosponsored by Bobby Scott (D-VA), Steve Chabot (R-OH), Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), and Davis.

Why new legislation after black farmers won an historic class action decision? And what does this have to do with nonprofits and foundations?

The Pigford decision is one of triumph and tragedy. Most people in the nonprofit sector, predominantly urban as it is, have never had much interaction with black farmers, much less the Pigford case.

One out of every nine black farmers lives—or lived, until recently—in North Carolina, including one named Tim Pigford. Like many black farmers, Tim Pigford thought he was going to get a farm ownership loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but he didn’t. When he protested to the House Agriculture Committee, he suddenly lost the operating loans he had had access to as a tenant farmer. Then the Farmers Home Administration (part of the Department of Agriculture) foreclosed on his home.

By depriving Pigford of critical loan funds, Pigford lost his farm, but he wasn’t alone. Since the turn of the century, the number of black-owned farms has dropped from something around 1,000,000 around the turn of the century [ii ] to approximately 18,000, [iii ] proportionally a decrease from 14 percent to around 1 percent of farms.

Pigford didn’t give up. He filed a class-action suit in 1998—and won—charging the Department of Agriculture with a pattern of discrimination against African-American farmers regarding farm loan programs. Black farmers who could show even minimal evidence of discriminatory treatment at the hands of Agriculture between 1981 and 1996 would be entitled to a cash payment of $50,000, debt forgiveness (and potentially more money is specific instances), and preferential treatment on future loans.

At that point, the successful class action suit began to frazzle. The Department was hardly aggressive in processing discrimination claims. After extensions of deadlines due to insufficient notice to black farmers, the end results were still shocking: 81,000 out of 94,000 black farmers filing for restitution were rejected. [iv ]Under a court-ordered extension of the time limits for eligibility, nearly 66,000 farmers were reviewed, but only 2,131 assisted. [v ] Not only have black farmers received little of the estimated $3 to 4 billion value of the settlement, but patterns of insufficient support to minority farmers appear to continue. [vi ] Statistics show that the subsidy gap between black farmers and white farmers is widening post-Pigford.[vii]

Not only have black farmers had to endure the racism of a federal agency, but they encountered the enmity of some white famers who “complain(ed) that black farmers and con artists are ripping Uncle Sam off with phony ‘black farm claims.’” [viii ] That makes Grassley’s involvement as notable as Obama’s, since, as Grassley noted with his sponsorship of the black farmers legislation, “To be honest with you, I know of one black farmer in Iowa. But, justice knows little about state lines.” [ix]

It took federal attorneys and staff only 56,000 hours costing $12,000,000 to fight the Pigford decision and deny benefits to the hard-pressed complainants. The requirements for aggrieved farmers were brief but nearly insurmountable: black farmers requesting restitution had to prove that they were denied a loan and to identify a white farmer who did receive a loan that they didn’t. [x ] No surprise then to learn that by the end of 2004, 2,660 black farmers in Mississippi had received some compensation but another 19,000 Mississippi farmers had been rejected as having missed the filing deadline. [xi ] But what about the entities on the other side, the groups pressing the case for the rights of black farmers? They do not seem to have had much capital on their side.

One of the more significant groups fighting for black farms has been the Federation of Southern Cooperatives and Land Assistance Fund, whose indomitable Shirley Sherrod is widely respected for its legislative advocacy. In the 1980s, the Federation pushed for targeting of Farmers Home Administration ownership and operating loans for minority farmers, inclusion of people of color on USDA staff, and requiring the Department to file a civil rights performance and enforcement report. [xii]

Gary Grant formed the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association, assuming a leadership role in the Pigford class action litigation. Like Tim Pigford, Gary Grant’s family owned a farm in North Carolina (the state with the most black farmers), but was denied a Farmers Home Administration loan. The farm went into foreclosure, and the young man remembers the 18-wheelers that came to the family farm in the predawn hours to remove all of its equipment. [xiii ] Another organization headed by a longtime Virginia-based advocate for this issue, the National Black Farmers Association, has been engaged in Pigford-related concerns for many years, though NBFA’s move to endorse the reelection of former Virginia Republican Senator George Allen after the famous “macaca” incident [xiv ] tainted the organization a bit. [xv]

Civil rights stories like the plight of black farmers and the status of Pigford v. Glickman settlement may not attract much newspaper attention in this post-racial era. But race is a significant issue, it can’t be interred as a relic of the past. This nation contains population groups who bear the brunt of discriminatory practices, overt and covert, current and historic. To sweep them under the rug is intentional historical blindness. Thanks to the diversely composed Congressional collaboration of Obama, Grassley, Scott, and Chabot, the government’s perverse non-implementation of the Pigford decision hasn’t been buried for good.

 According to Black Farmers in America, written by photographer John Francis Ficara and pundit Juan Williams, black farmers still routinely refer to the USDA as this nation’s “last plantation.” [xvi ] Even fulfilling Pigford would be only a start, not a finish. Needed actions include extended outreach to black farmers by USDA extension and credit programs, technical assistance to help black farmers maintain their farms ands stay on the land, and new funding for programs such as the Land Assistance Fund of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives and programs that help black farmers reach new markets.

The agenda of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union had as one of its agendas giving tenant farmers a fair share of Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA) payments which were supposed to be shared by both large landowners and their tenant farmers. Not surprisingly, African-American farmers faced threats and violence in return for seeking a piece of AAA funding. Notwithstanding the law, it took organizations such as the STFU and organizers such as Wiley College professor Melvin Tolson [xvii ]to demand that government do what it was supposed to do. Half a century later, another group of nonprofits linked to the historic Pigford class action suit seems to be reliving part of the “Great Debaters” storyline.

Maybe with a potential White House occupant talking up legislation to redress the Pigford settlement, institutional philanthropy will read the election results and follow suit. Few have to date: the Marguerite Casey, Jessie Smith Noyes, Ford, William Randolph Hearst, and Kellogg Foundations have been noteworthy for their support of the Federation and a small array of foundations including Beldon, Nathan Cummings, William and Flora Hewlett, Popplestone, Wilburforce, Surdna, and Ford have been supportive of the Environmental Working Group (a quarter-century old environmental advocacy group known in part for its opposition to wasteful subsidies in the Farm Bill) which has partnered with black farmers’ organizations in the past on Pigford research and monitoring. Nonprofits and foundations concerned about racial equity might do well to pay more attention and put more resources to not only rural America, but to this signal civil rights issue of preserving and assisting minority-owned farms.

i Like many class action suits, the names change as administrations change, so Pigford v. Glickman (during the Clinton Administration) has since become Pigford v. Veneman and Pigford v. Johanns under the current Bush Administration.

ii A peak of 2.2 million black farmers according to John Francis Ficara on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation” on February 23, 2006, cf. the NPR citations below

iv Arianne Callender and Brendan DeMelle, Obstruction of Justice: USDA Undermines Historic Civil Rights Settlement with Black Farmers (Environmental Working Group and National Black Farmers Association, July 20, 2004) 

viii Monica Davis, “Something’s Rotten in the Land of Cotton-and in the USDA ,” Kansas City Infozine (November 19, 2007) ; as an example, see

xMeredith Flanagan and Laura Inoyue, US Small Farmers and Racism

xi Ana Radelat, “Legislation Would Give Black Farmers Second Chance to Claim Discrimination,” Gannett News Service (February 18, 2006)

xivCaine O’Rear, “Making Rounds in Richmond: Bush to appear at fundraiser tonight ” (October 19, 2006) 


xv After NBFA’s endorsement, Allen signed on to support a Grassley bill on the Pigford settlement, cf. “Allen Unveils Bill to Help Black Farmers ”,  ; nonetheless, NBFA is apparently still active, and with the inclusion of provisions of the Obama bill in the farm bill reauthorization legislation passed in December, 2007, NBFA’s executive director appears to be actively supporting Obama’s presidential campaign, cf. a statement on the NBFA webpage under “press” titled “Black Farmers Association president stumps for Obama in Bamberg” (January 1, 2008)

xvii Tolson became a renowned poet, the author of Dark Symphony (1941) and A Gallery of Harlem Portraits (finished in 1935 but published only posthumously in 1979).