THE ISSUE: A federal lawsuit alleging discrimination against black farmers. THE IMPACT: Many black farmers say they are owed money by the government, thus hurting their livelihoods.
Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association Inc. members heard about a class-action racial discrimination lawsuit against the United States Department of Agriculture centered on the loaning of money at an event held Tuesday at the Pine Bluff Convention Center.
Thomas Burrell founded the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association Inc. in 1997 and was a plaintiff in filing a lawsuit alleging racial discrimination on behalf of other black farmers. About 50 people attended the meeting.
Burrell said the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association Inc. consists of 15,000 members and that this organization is suing the United States Department of Agriculture seeking a settlement of $1.8 billion.
Burrell discussed the effect of the United States Court of Appeals’ ruling on Oct. 31, 2017. This court ruled that the black farmers are “not eligible to participate in this claims resolution process and that your claim has been denied.”
“Our attorneys filed a lawsuit in July 2015 for the benefit of individuals to include heirs and representatives who were attempting to file a claim on behalf of African-American males,” Burrell said. “One of the several class action lawsuits is called the Hispanic Female and Women Farmers Claims Resolutions. The facilitator, which is a contractor of USDA, summarily denied those individuals those claims for no other reason than because of their race. That is a direct violation of the Constitution in general and more specifically the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”
Burrell said the USDA hired Epiq Systems of Portland, Oregon, as a contractor.
“This court order proves that USDA is still discriminating against people on the basis of race, sex and origin,” Burrell said. “This is the second highest court in the land.”
“… Congress has allowed folks to sue the [USDA] for discrimination for the last 25 years, and it is still discriminating against people on the basis of race,” Burrell said. “This is Nazism. This is Hitlerism. We are asking our members to come forward today so they can establish their standing. Standing simply means we’ve found the defendant guilty. The defendant has to give compensation to people who have standing.”
David A. Hall Sr. is the chairman of the Ecumenical Action Committee, a Memphis, Tennessee-based group of clergy who support the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association. Hall gave a speech about black Americans being farmers and contributing to the United States growing, yet he lamented too many black men are in prison. Hall said that his relatives and he fought for America in World Wars I and II, Korea, and Vietnam like many other black Americans.
“We have affirmed our humanity and our rightful claims in our American citizenship,” Hall said. “Due to the life and struggle of Dr. Martin Luther King, we recognize the 13th and 14th amendments to the Constitution strengthens our purpose. The arc of the universe bends toward justice.”
Hall concluded his speech by saying: “I will see you at the finish line with a check in your hand.”
The lawsuit plaintiffs are the estate of Earnest Lee Boyland care of Earnestine Bonner, the estate of Lee Sylvester Caldwell care of Isadore Caldwell, Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association Inc. care of Thomas Burrell, and similarly situated individuals in their personal and individual capacities.
Thousands of black farmers who were discriminated against by the U.S. Agriculture Department will be eligible to receive $1.25 billion in a settlement, the government said in 2010. The settlement of the case, known as Pigford II, is contingent on Congress approving $1.15 billion for the farmers, in addition to $100 million already provided in the Farm Bill.
For decades, black farmers said they were unjustly being denied farm loans or subjected to longer waits for loan approval because of racism, and accused the United States Department of Agriculture of not responding to their complaints.
The original Pigford lawsuit, named after North Carolina farmer Timothy Pigford, was filed against the United States Department of Agriculture in 1997, and settled two years later when the government compensated black farmers left out of its loan and assistance programs.
Reuters contributed to this report.