When will the checks arrive?

That’s the question to which John Boyd, president of the National Black Farmers Association, has been seeking an answer to for more than a decade. But with a Senate vote slated to take place this week, the Virginia-based farmer said he hopes the government will finally pay its debt.

“This is taking too long; farmers are frustrated,” he told the AFRO one day before the vote. “We have a judgment against the government and we can’t seem to collect. We need to talk to someone in accounts payable because the government has defaulted on its bill.”

With Congress set to go into a seven-week recess, Boyd has been lobbying for lawmakers to approve the payment of a $1.25 billion settlement in a class action lawsuit filed on behalf of 80,000 Black farmers who have been victims of loan discriminations.

Boyd made his case to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in a meeting on Capitol Hill last week. Reid promised to put the matter up for unanimous consent—a means of expediting legislation by means of a straight up or down vote—on Aug. 2 but it was postponed to Aug. 4.

The progress of the lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture, known as Pigford v. Vilsack, through the Congress has been rocky at best. Attached to a number of bills, such as the war funding bill, tax extenders and FEMA disaster assistance bill, the settlement funding has been approved by the House in two separate bills. In the Senate, however, it has been stymied by Republicans bent on cutting domestic spending. Of the six times the measure came up for approval, not one Republican voted in support, Boyd said.

Reid told the media in this latest attempt, the Black farmers’ claim will be offered as a stand-alone bill with costs already offset. “I know there are too many still suffering from treatment of the U.S. government and we have an obligation to make things right,” the Gannet News Service quoted Reid as saying. “We have not given up on passing this legislation…. I will continue fighting Republican opposition to the rights of Black farmers . . . who are affected by the stalling of settlements to see that justice is done.”

Boyd said he spoke to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who assured him of his support.

The Obama administration also has expressed its support. But Boyd said the level of support President Obama demonstrated as a senator has not been evident since he entered the White House.

“We need to get more of a push from the president. We want him to get involved, the way he pushed health care,” Boyd said. “We were one of the first Black organizations to get behind the president when the media and others had counted him out. We took a chance on him, and we’re asking him to take a chance on us.”

Pointing to efforts to save and enact a measure, sponsored by Arkansas Democrat Sen. Blanche Lincoln, that would disburse $1.5 billion in disaster relief to farmers that lost crops in 2009, Boyd said the plight of Black farmers also should be treated as an emergency. Many of the plaintiffs have lost their farms or are struggling to maintain their operations. Others have died.

“I am concerned that Congress will not act before the settlement expires –by agreement amongst the parties it had been extended 50 days from June 29, 2010,” he said in a statement. “This year I have attended the funerals of many Black farmers who passed before ever seeing this case resolved.”

He added, “We have to pay the farmers, and we have to pay them right now.”

AFRO Staff Writer Dorothy Rowley contributed to this report.

 

Zenitha Prince

Special to the AFRO