Before Wednesday, frustrated Black farmers had a bone to pick with President Barack Obama for appearing to backtrack on his campaign promise to them. They even held a protest rally last month, outside the U.S. Department of Agriculture, demanding that his administration move forward on their discrimination settlement with the agency-something that Obama had pledged to do when he was running for president.
After a tense period of silence on the issue, on Wednesday Obama finally announced a plan to include $1.250 billion in settlement funds for the Black farmers in his 2010 federal budget. In a statement Obama said, "...I'm pleased that we are now able to close this chapter in the agency's history and move on."
The story dates back to a 1998 discrimination suit known as the Pigford Case. The class-action suit involved 13,000 Black farmers who successfully sued the U.S. Department of Agriculture for denying them loans that were routinely given to White farmers. In a nearly $1 billion settlement, the government paid the farmers $50,000 apiece, plus $12,500 in tax breaks. Thousands more Black farmers, however, missed the deadline for filing; the one-year filing period was too swift, they argued, for those living out in remote rural areas to even learn about it in time.
So it was a tremendous relief when Obama, then a Senator, took on their struggle. In 2007, he spearheaded Senate legislation that would allow late filers to sue, if eligible, for the $50,000 that the earlier farmers received. Congress passed the bill last year, committing to $100 million as a starting point for beginning the adjudication process. The bill specified that this initial fund could be supplemented later with the amount needed.
With 75,000 new pending claims, however, the full payment could cost $2 to 3 billion, and the process continued to stall with the Obama administration. In February the Justice Department even filed a legal motion arguing that the $100 million cited in the bill was a cap for the total payment, which would have given the farmers about $1,500 each.
For months Dr. John Boyd, president of the National Black Farmers Association, pleaded with the President to stand up for the intention of his bill. Moments after Obama's announcement on the settlement funds, he explained to ESSENCE.com why he's pleased by the President's stand on the issue—and why the chapter isn't closed on it just yet.
ESSENCE.COM: So, what do you think?
DR. JOHN BOYD: It looks like it will compensate about 13,000 farmers. It's a little ways off, but it's definitely a step in the right direction. We're pleased to see that this issue is on the President's radar screen, and we look forward to sitting down with the Department of Agriculture and the White House to make sure that none of the eligible Black farmers are left out. That's our big concern here. We know that this is going to be a one-shot deal for us, and we want to do this thing right.
ESSENCE.COM: In his announcement, President Obama said he's closing the chapter and moving on. So it sounds like the $1.250 billion is it.
BOYD: That's the way he wrote it, and if I were President, I would have written it the same way. But as a representative of the late filers, I have to press on and make sure we don't leave out anybody that's eligible. We've got 75,000 late filers, so even at a 60 percent approval rate, $1.250 billion looks to be a few billion off. Nobody wants to close this chapter more than I do. But we have to close it with the right figure.
ESSENCE.COM: Were you surprised that the President took this step?
BOYD: No, we've been leaning on the White House and the Agriculture Department to get this thing off the ground. I'm very pleased that he stepped up. The Black farmers rallied thousands of people in the south for the President during the campaign, and I'm glad to be able to tell them that this offer was put on the table. They've been waiting so many years for justice.