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Pigford Settlement

Floor Speech

By:
Date:
Location: Washington, DC

BREAK IN TRANSCRIPT

Mr. BURRIS. Madam President, even though he has left the floor, I would like to thank the distinguished Senator from Wyoming for permitting me to proceed. I want to comment on what the distinguished Senator from North Carolina spoke on because that is my topic as well. We hope to be able to bring up this issue on the Senate floor and get some justice for the Black farmers.

I come to the floor today to speak about justice and the Department of Agriculture. Let me go back a few years.

Though civil rights legislation in the 1960s was supposed to have outlawed racial discrimination, at least on the Federal level, a 1982 report issued by the Civil Rights Commission stated that the USDA was ``a catalyst in the decline of the black farmer.''

That year, African-American farmers received only 1 percent of all farm ownership loans, only 2.5 percent of all farm-operating loans, and only 1 percent of all soil and water conservation loans. That year, too, the Reagan administration closed the USDA's Civil Rights Office--the very arm that investigated discrimination complaints.

Adding insult to injury, when African-American and other minority farmers filed complaints, the USDA did little to address them. In 1983, President Reagan pushed through budget cuts that eliminated the USDA Office of Civil Rights--and officials admitted they ``simply threw discrimination complaints in the trash without ever responding to or investigating them'' until 1996, when President Clinton ordered the office re-opened.

Even when there were legal findings of discrimination at USDA, they often went unpaid--and those that did get paid, the money often came too late, since the farm had already been foreclosed.

In 1984 and 1985, the USDA lent $1.3 billion to farmers nationwide to buy land. Of the almost 16,000 farmers who received those funds, only 209 were Black. By 1992, in North Carolina, the number of Black farms had fallen to 2,498, a 64 percent drop since 1978.

In Illinois, there are many similar stories. As a child growing up on the family farm in west central Illinois, Lloyd Johnson remembers cropland extending for miles around, all of it owned by African-Americans like himself. ``For a stretch of four miles, it was black-owned land,'' the 66-year-old farmer recalls. ``Now there's mighty few.''

Today, Johnson's farm in Alton, IL, is one of just 59 run by African Americans across the State, down from 123 in 1997, according to revised figures from a 2002 census. As farming has become a big business, it has become one of the least diverse businesses around.

It was not always. In 1920, Illinois had 892 Black farmers, and African Americans owned 14 percent of the Nation's farmland. Now they hold less than 1 percent. The same pressure to consolidate that has reduced the ranks of farmers for the past century is making any turnaround unlikely, demographers say. The number of Black farmers in Illinois, currently less than one in 1,000, appears destined to eventually hit zero. Probably there will be none very shortly.

In 1990, The Minority Farmers Rights Act, created to address the injustices noted at USDA, and passed in this body by former Senator Wyche Fowler of Georgia, who sat on the Agriculture Committee, authorized $10 million a year in technical assistance to minority farmers.

The new program was only able to garner $2 to $3 million a year under President Reagan, and was in danger of being de-funded altogether. As working capital and technical assistance was systematically denied to Black farmers across America, most rural African-American farmers did not have access to essential legal assistance and fell prey to land speculators and unscrupulous lawyers.

In 1994, the Land Loss Prevention Project filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit on behalf of Black farmers, turning key information over to Congress to investigate discriminatory practices by the USDA. Again, USDA released a report analyzing data from 1990 to 1995, and found that ``minorities received less than their fair share of USDA money for crop payments, disaster payments, and loans.''

In 1997, a USDA Civil Rights Team found the agency's system for handling civil rights complaints was still in shambles: the agency disorganized, the process for handling complaints about program benefits ``a failure,'' and the process for handling employment discrimination claims was ``untimely and unresponsive.''

A follow-up report by the GAO in 1999 found that 44 percent of program discrimination cases, and 64 percent of employment discrimination cases, had been backlogged for over a year.

It was against this backdrop in 1997, that a group of Black farmers led by Tim Pigford of North Carolina filed a class action lawsuit against the USDA. In all, 22,000 farmers were granted access to the lawsuit, and in 1999, the government admitted wrongdoing and agreed to a $2.3 billion settlement--the largest civil rights settlement in history.

However, African-American farmers had misgivings with the process of the Pigford settlement. Many farmers who joined the lawsuit were also denied payment. By one estimate, 9 out of 10 farmers who sought restitution under Pigford were denied. The Bush Department of Justice spent 56,000 office hours and 12 million contesting farmers' claims; and many farmers feel their cases were dismissed on technicalities.

I would like to remember what Congresswoman Eva Clayton, an African-American Democrat from North Carolina, said at a March 1999 Black farmers rally at the Federal Courthouse in Washington, DC: ``There is reason to despair ..... There are several reasons why the number of black farmers is declining so rapidly. But the one that has been documented time and time again, is the discriminatory environment present in the Department of Agriculture ..... the very agency established to accommodate the special needs of farmers ..... Once land is lost, it is very difficult to recover ..... We stand here today in despair over this history. Yet, we also stand here today in hope that justice will prevail, and that the record will be set right for those farmers who have been wronged ..... ''

Shortly after coming into office, President Obama's Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, signaled a change in direction at USDA. The Secretary has declared ``A New Civil Rights Era at USDA,'' and stepped-up handling of civil rights claims in the agency.

This year, Secretary Vilsack responded to concerns over handling of the original Pigford case, agreeing to a historic second payment in April, known as Pigford II, that would expand the settlement to farmers who were excluded from the first case.

We are here today to help put an end to this long-standing injustice. Pigford II is before us and will help make right this history of discrimination by one of our own government agencies.

I want to thank Leader Reid for his unceasing efforts in bringing the Pigford II and Cobell settlements before us, and I thank others who came before me and those of us here today, on both sides of the aisle, who have advanced the force of justice on this issue.

I urge my colleagues to consider carefully this important question today.

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