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Judge Grants Preliminary Approval of Black Farmers Settlement

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

A federal judge granted preliminary approval on May 13th of the $1.25 billion settlement for black farmers for decades of discrimination at the hands of the US Department of Agriculture. President Obama signed the funding legislation for the settlement in a White House ceremony on December 8th. Dr. John Boyd, president of the National Black Farmers Association issued the following statement on the judge's decision:

I am pleased to see movement from the judge in this case. Black farmers have waited far too long for justice. They deserve to have their cases heard by a neutral arbitrator. This ruling signals one more step forward on the long march to justice. It has been an arduous and challenging journey.

Since I began advocating for black farmers 26 years ago nearly all of my mentors in the black farmers’ movement have passed away. I spent eight years pressing Congress for remedy for the nearly 80,000 late filers. In May 2008 Congress finally passed the black farmers’ bill which provided $100 million and allowed the late filers’ cases to be heard on merit. Then-Senator Obama was the lead sponsor for a provision including the black farmers in the late filers’ category as a part of the farm bill. Some conservative members of Congress defined the $100 million approved by Congress as a cap, leaving little to compensate black farmers.

We worked for another two years to offset that obstacle to full fairness in these cases. In February 2009 the Obama Administration reached a settlement with the black farmers for $1.25 billion, which still required an Act of Congress to take effect. In pressing our case, I even drove my tractor, named “Justice,” to Washington and launched a three-week protest until Congress approved the bill.

Judge Paul Friedman’s approval, announced today, is much welcomed news. I look forward to the day when claimants finally have the opportunity to have their claims determined on their merit. Fairness and opportunity—that’s all the farmers and those who attempted to farm have ever asked.

Judge Friedman's decision comes during a week of increased activity on civil rights issues at USDA. According to the Associated Press, a  report commissioned by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack shows that "despite acknowledging a legacy of discrimination, the Agriculture Department is still plagued by civil rights problems that have in the past led to unequal treatment of minorities seeking loans and other help."

But after USDA abruptly ousted long-time employee Shirley Sherrod in reaction to what turned out to be a heavily edited video, disseminated by a discredited right-wing blogger, that grossly distorted the message of a speech Sherrod gave in March -- she has decided to return to the agency. Sherrod announced over the weekend that she is going to be a contract employee tasked with improving the relationship with the USDA and minority farmers and ranchers.

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