Senator Edward M. Kennedy, John Boyd and the Fight to End Discrimination against Black Farmers
28 August 2009
Senator Kennedy was a shining light in one of the ugliest civil rights battles in American agricultural history—which is ongoing even as this is being written. Over the last decade, Senator Kennedy became one of the most vocal Senators on the Hill in search of civil and social justice for America`s black farmers, at a time when many people didn`t even realize how large a population of black farmers still exists in this country. But Senator Kennedy recognized their vital importance to rural communities, and to the Ag economy, and he also recognized the importance of preserving a historic way of life that was rapidly vanishing. Perhaps most importantly, he recognized the dire need for making corrections in discriminatory policies that are still left over, somewhat incredibly, from the time of the creation of the Department of Agriculture (USDA) during President Lincoln`s administration.
Senator Kennedy was one of the first legislators to attempt to redress the decades of racially biased lending and credit practices and a pandemic of discriminatory USDA policies against black farmers and other non-white farmers. For decades, it was unwritten USDA policy to not give black and other minority farmers—and women farmers—the same kind of educational, credit, and financial resources (through subsidies) that were offered to white farmers. The long and now legendary USDA lawsuit, Pigford vs. Glickman, which became a huge class action lawsuit that dragged on for years, attempted to redress these inequities, with financial payments to farmers who could prove they had been denied equal access to USDA resources; the suit was settled in 1999. But almost immediately, it was deemed inadequate. An estimated 80,000 black farmers had been locked out of Pigford, because they were unaware that the suit even existed. And there was an equivalent problem, that`s a singular example of the kinds of practices state and local USDA officials had been engaged in: Black farmers were asked to prove the USDA had not helped them, or loaned them money based on their race—but USDA officials were doing things like hrowing out their loan applications--based on race. There was no paper trail for thousands of farmers, and they weren`t allowed to join Pigford. But during the long battle to re-open Pigford, Senator Kennedy was a bastion of support for Virginia farmer John Boyd, President of the National Black Farmers Association, who has led the campaign to get Pigford re-addressed.
"Senator Ted Kennedy was a champion of the nation`s black farmers, and his Senate office was always open to me," Boyd said on Wednesday. "Senator Kennedy always listened to our issues, and moved with swift action. Senator Kennedy`s work and dream for a better America will live on in all of us who were affected and inspired by him."
Sen. Kennedy was one of the cosponsors of a bipartisan 2007 bill that would have finally settled the Pigford claims—and the bill came into being thanks to Boyd. The Pigford case is a complicated story, but represents how enduring discrimination is, and how long the fight has been—even in this decade—and how tireless Senator Kennedy was. Boyd was among the farmers who actually did receive compensation from the 1999 Pigford settlement, but when he realized how many other black farmers had been locked out—and were going bankrupt and losing their lands, and being denied the kind of support the USDA routinely gives white farmers—he swung into action, and has become a regular presence on the Hill, with literally thousands of meetings with Senators and members of Congress—always with the help of Senator Kennedy. And Boyd didn`t stop at the Hill; he`s well connected in Southern black communities, and he joined the Obama campaign very early, under prom