WASHINGTON, D.C. — Like many dealings in the life of a farmer, the struggle of African-American farmers to achieve justice for discrimination they endured from the USDA was difficult and long.
John Boyd Jr., president of the National Black Farmers Assoc. (NBFA), saw the journey through from start to finish. It all began when black farmers were turned down when attempting to take part in loan and subsidy programs provided by the government. Unlike white farmers, black farmers struggling financially were often not granted subsidies, disaster assistance or loans by the USDA.
Because of this, many black farmers lost their farms and homes when hard times befell their operations. To address this, black farmers across the country banded together to file a class action lawsuit in 1997 – Pigford v. Glickman – following the formation of the NBFA.
“I think it was the most important case since the Civil Rights Act for African-Americans in this country,” Boyd said. “It set a precedent that discrimination shouldn’t be tolerated against minorities – African-American farmers, in this case. Several historic steps had to take place to move forward.”
Because the statute of limitations had expired on many of the original discrimination lawsuits, the NBFA had to rally support to pass legislation that would allow the statute to be waived. After two years, that legislation was passed and in Pigford v. Glickman, U.S. Federal District Court Judge Paul L. Friedman approved the settlement agreement and consent decree in the case on April 14, 1999.
This required Boyd to testify in front of the U.S. House Committee on Agriculture. The settlement recognized discrimination against 22,363 black farmers.
“First, the statute of limitations had to be lifted by an act of Congress, and that statute was used in the Hispanics case and Native Americans farmer cases,” Boyd explained. “That was the first big step for us, when we were able to get Congress to lift the statute of limitations back to 1981-1997, when those cases were heard.”
However, the USDA was not required to notify farmers eligible to file in the class action lawsuit, which resulted in more than 83,000 farmers not filing before the deadline. It was an incomplete compensation, but some still called it the largest civil rights class action settlement in American history, worth more than $2 billion.
On Sept. 12, 2000, Boyd testified before the Senate Committee on Agriculture that many farmers had not yet received payments and many others were left out of the settlement completely. It took another four years before NFBA, partnered with the Environmental Working Group, could issue a report in July 2004 accusing the USDA of withholding the majority of the multibillion-dollar settlement of the discrimination cases.
The report stated the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and USDA had committed “willful obstruction of justice” in blocking many of the black farmer cases and called for all of them to be re-heard. Later, it was found that one DOJ staff “attorney” was unlicensed while handling black farmers’ cases.
The NBFA continued to lobby Congress to provide relief and secured legislation that would provide $100 million to settle cases of farmers who had filed late in the 1999 lawsuit. In 2007, while the NBFA was collecting support for that legislation, it was revealed that some USDA Farm Services Agency employees were engaged in activities aimed at blocking Congressional legislation that would aid black farmers.
That year, then-Sen. Barack Obama cosponsored a bill that was passed providing that settlement money. Black farmers who were denied a chance to have their cases heard in the Pigford settlement filed a new lawsuit against USDA in 2008.
In an effort to draw attention to the case, Boyd hitched up two mules and drove a wagon 280 miles to Washington D.C., attracting new press coverage and support. The bill did pass in Congress, but did not authorize the spending to fund the settlement.
Over the next two years, he and the NBFA brought up a final bill to Congress allowing the spending to cover the funding of the settlement, but it failed 11 times before finally passing in 2010. Congress approved and then-President Obama signed into law that December legislation that set aside $1.15 billion to resolve the outstanding black farmers’ cases.
Boyd attended the bill-signing ceremony at the White House. For him, bringing justice to black farmers had become a test of will and endurance, but one worth it.
“The struggle has been going on for three decades here, it’s not a new story, and it’s one that never really piqued in the national media,” he said. “Many young people have never heard of the black farmers’ class action lawsuit and our fight against the USDA.”
Among the founders of the NBFA, he said he is the only one still alive.