Florence Morning News - America Has Obligation to Right the Wrongs of Centuries Past
By Barack Obama
As we work to find the best solutions to the challenges America's farmers face in the 21st century, we have an opportunity - and an obligation - to right the wrongs of the past century.
For far too long, this country hardworking African-American farmers were discriminated against by the government and county committees who denied them credit and benefit programs because of their race. For decades, African American farmers suffered disenfranchisement and discrimination by they the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). This injustice ran deep and had devastating effects. Because so many of these farmers were denied credit and benefits, the number of African American farmers from 1920 until the early 1990s declined by almost 98 percent.
During this time, too many African American farmers saw their land foreclosed upon or were forced out of farming altogether.
In 1999, the USDA settled a class action law suit with African American farmers in the case of Pigford v. Glickman, which allowed many of these farmers to file claims against the USDA for failing to respond to racial discrimination. A federal court approved this settlement as "a good first step towards assuring that this kind of discrimination that has been visited on African American farmers since Reconstruction will not continue into the next century." This Pigford settlement brought relief to more than 20,000 black farmers.
Yet, the USDA underestimated the number of potential claimants and gave inadequate notice to farmers about the Pigford settlement. Therefore, many farmers were unable to file their claims before the filing deadline. About 75,000 additional African American farmers who filed their claims of discrimination after the filing deadline were denied any opportunity to have their claims heard and evaluated on the merits.
We must work to ensure that African American farmers are not shut out from receiving just compensation for the wrongs they have suffered.
That's why I introduced legislation in the Senate that provides tens of thousands of eligible late Pigford claimants a right to go to court and have their cases heard. Thanks to bipartisan support by the Senate Agriculture Committee, this legislation included was included in the Farm Bill, and a version of the bill passed by the House of Representatives in July.
We are fighting to get these farmers the compensation they deserve. Yet, it appears the USDA is intent on undermining our efforts. There were reports in early August about USDA employees using federal resources to lobby against the legislation passed in the House. And more recently, the USDA's top lawyer has publically criticized the legislation on grounds that there were 30 times as many valid claims of discrimination as the funding in the House bill will cover. The statement uses the depth of this problem as an excuse not to fix it.
This injustice is glaring. Now the question remains - will the Bush administration do the right thing and support Congressional efforts to provide a small measure of justice to African American farmers who were victims of discrimination?
We won't give up until the answer is yes. We must put politics and partisanship aside to come together and at last make things right for these farmers. It is our moral responsibility to publicly acknowledge the impact of discrimination on African American farmers and provide fair compensation for past abuses.
- Barack Obama is a US Senator from Illinois and a Democratic candidate for president.