Law is a test of endurance, especially in civil rights.
The justice system can be a crushingly slow machine shattering dreams of fairness and depleting optimism. Endurance is the key. Black farmers know of endurance. They recently received a $1.25 billion legal settlement. It is the largest settlement in civil rights history. Yet, their achievement was nearly overshadowed by the length of time needed to acquire this $1.25 billion settlement.
Millions of urban sophisticates have their roots in the farm. Cities provided opportunities. But, what of those who remained on the farm? Black-American farmers have been embattled for 150 years. Following the bravery demonstrated by Black soldiers, General Sherman promised them 40 acres of land and a mule to plow it. After President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination this promise was renounced. Black farmers, comprised of freemen and the formerly enslaved, worked the land despite schemes to defraud them and unfair laws which beset their every endeavor. Flood waters, droughts, and fluctuating crop prices made the back-breaking work of farm life uncertain, at best. Yet, they persevered.
On September 30, 1919, in Elaine, Arkansas, Phillips County, Black farmers were murdered simply for attempting to gain better prices for their crops. Black farmers had met to discuss joining the Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America. They wanted to join the union in order to end the low prices Whites paid to Black farmers for their crops.
Rumors of a Black insurrection brought mobs of angry Whites to the church meeting. Armed, they surrounded the building. A shoot-out ensued leaving over one hundred Black farmers dead. Five White men were killed. The infamous Elaine Riots resulted in the arrest of seventy Black farmers. No Whites were prosecuted. Twelve Black farmers were convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to death. Torture was used to gain confessions, evidence was falsified, and witnesses intimidated. The trial lasted only a few hours. The men were given death sentences. Their execution set for the next month.
Walter White, President of the NAACP, investigated. Scipio A. Jones, a renowned Black attorney from Little Rock, represented Frank Moore and the other the men on death row. Moore v. Dempsey was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Scipio Jones argued that the jury, facing a lynch mob outside of the courthouse, was forced to give guilty verdicts despite any evidence to the contrary. In 1923, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the men had not received a fair trial. Finally, in 1925, the Black farmers were pardoned by Arkansas Governor Thomas C. McRae.
Entrenched racism would lead to the Black migration north. In 1920, Black farmers owned 14% of America’s farm land. By, 1992, their share of farm land was 1%. All farmers rely on the Department of Agriculture (DOA) for loans and assistance. Without these loans, farmers have little to support them when crops fail. The DOA was created under President Abraham Lincoln in 1862 to assist farmers. Lincoln referred to the DOA as the people’s department.
Yet, the Department of Agriculture has an ingloriously long history of systemic discrimination against Black people. In 1997, Black farmers brought Pigford v. Glickman, a lawsuit against the DOA, alleging discrimination in the allocation of loans and services and then in 1999 Brewington v. Glickman. The cases were consolidated under Pigford v. Glickman. Daniel Glickman was the Secretary of Agriculture. The DOA entered a settlement agreement with the Black farmers covering discriminatory acts between 1981 and 1999. This settlement was challenged by White farmers alleging reverse discrimination.
Their case was dismissed.
Not every Black farmer filed a claim in time to become a part of that $100 million settlement. In 2008, President Barack Obama signed the Farm Bill allowing thousands of late filers inclusion in the settlement. However, $100 million could not cover the extensive damage to Black farmers by the DOA. Agri-business is a multi-billion dollar global industry. Therefore, on February 18, 2010, at the request of the DOA, Congress allotted an additional settlement amount of $1.15 billion in the case now known as In re Black Farmers Discrimination Litigation bringing the financial settlement to $1.25 billion, in total.
As a fifth generation Midwesterner and the grand-daughter of Kansas farmers, the Pigford case represents more than a significant legal achievement. To work the land is to sustain life. Whether owners of a small family farm or president of a conglomerate Black farmers lost a way of life due to racism. Millions of acres of land were lost. However, an endurance gained from working the land kept Black farmers steadfast. Perseverance gained from awaiting each new season allowed them to await a season for justice. $1.25 billion cannot bring back a way of life. However, it can certainly purchase the land needed to begin anew. The deadline for submission is May 11, 2012.
Gloria J. Browne-Marshall, an associate professor of Constitutional Law at John Jay College in New York City, is the director/founder of The Law and Policy Group, Inc. and author of “Race, Law, and American Society: 1607 to Present.”