Bernard Simelton, President of the NAACP Alabama State Conference, said on Tuesday that his organization is joining with the USDA Coalition of Minority Employees and others to pressure the Department of Agriculture to settle thousands of claims by black farmers that they have been discriminated against in their applications for loans and other federal assistance.
“The Alabama State Conference of the NAACP has received several complaints from black farmers that they continue to be denied equal treatment by the United States Department of Agriculture,” said Simelton, flanked by more than a dozen black farmers and NAACP members.
“Black farmers are being denied equal access to farm loans. While this discrimination is well documented, the USDA has not settled thousands of claims.”
Speaking at historic Kelly Ingram Park in downtown Birmingham, Simelton said that many people are under the false assumption that the long-running dispute between black farmers and the USDA had been resolved in the landmark Pigford v. Glickman class action lawsuit in 1999 and the subsequent Pigford II settlement in 2010.
In both cases, the government admitted to past discriminatory practices.
The complaints of black farmers that they were denied federal loans that they were qualified for and that they were charged higher interest rates than white farmers date back to 1983. When the original Pigford suit was settled in a consent decree in 1999 – in which 13,300 black farmers were awarded almost $1 billion – it was the largest civil rights settlement in history.
Another 70,000 farmers had filed late and not had their claims heard, and in the 2008 Farm Bill Congress provided for additional claims to be heard in court. In December 2010, Congress appropriated $1.2 billion for potential settlements in what was dubbed Pigford II.
“Many people believe all the claims by black farmers were settled with the Pigford class action lawsuits,” Simelton said. “This is untrue. There are a group of black farmers in Alabama and other states who were discriminated against when they applied for loans from the USDA.
“These farmers filed separate from the Pigford group and some have received favorable judgments by USDA. However, the USDA has reneged on many of the agreements they negotiated and 10 to 15 years later there is still no settlement with USDA for many of our black farmers.”
One such farmer at the press conference was Michael Stovall, who owns a 159-acre cattle farm near Town Creek in Lawrence County, Alabama.
Stovall, who was not part of the Pigford class action suit, said he had wanted to expand his farm to include chicken houses, but was denied a loan by the USDA, which he took to court for the first time in 1993 and received a settlement for discrimination in 1998 for $147,000.
“They then turned around and breached the settlement and I went back to the Court of Federal Claims in 2011,” he said.
Stovall said a settlement was reached to pay him $250,000 on the basis of the USDA breaching the original discrimination settlement, but not on the discrimination claim itself.
“I took that little bit of money because I thought they were going to settle the discrimination part of the case, which would have been several millions of dollars for 20 years of discrimination,” he said.
“But they didn’t and I was left unable to complete my chicken operation.”
Stovall said in some ways he was luckier than some other black farmers who waited too late to file claims and were disqualified on the grounds that the statute of limitations had run out.
He said that his original discrimination suit was based on him getting less loan money than he was entitled to and at a higher interest rate than white farmers, “which we proved in court.”
Lawrence C. Lucas, the retired president of the USDA Coalition of Minority Employees, whose membership includes both federal employees and private black farmers, thanked the Alabama NAACP for joining with his organization to put pressure on the courts and Congress to deal with farmers not included in the Pigford decisions.
“I want to thank the independent black farmers who have taken on the plight of those farmers who have been left to suffer and try to survive in a nation that has decided to not treat them fairly, not treat them the way other farmers — white farmers — are being treated,” he said.
“We are here today to let the country know that the discrimination, racism and reprisals against black farmers should not last any longer,” Lucas said. “We are calling on the national chapter of the NAACP to support the Alabama farmers and the Alabama NAACP which has taken a step to see that justice is not just for some, but for all.
Lucas said there are currently more than 3,000 unprocessed complaints of discrimination at the USDA.
“Many people believe the issue was settled by the Pigford I and Pigford II decisions,” he said. “That is not true and Alabama has had more complaints filed than any other state.”
Lucas estimated that “tens of thousands” of black farmers are still being treated unfairly by the USDA and are potential litigants against the government.
Simelton said the USDA has provided most farmers enough in loans and other assistance “to make them fail,” and that the USDA had been invited to send a representative to the press conference, but declined.
Justin DeJong, the deputy director of the office of communication at the USDA in Washington, responded by email Tuesday afternoon.
“Agriculture Secretary [Tom] Vilsack has instituted a zero tolerance policy for acts of discrimination,” he wrote. “USDA takes allegations of discrimination seriously and any complaint should be filed with USDA’s Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights.
“The Department has made significant changes in its loan processes to address concerns raised by socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers, and to meet the needs of all of America’s farmers. USDA continues to improve its civil rights complaint processing time,” he wrote.