Black farmers gain support of NAACP during civil rights group's convention U.S. agriculture chief says his office shares VTC blame for growers' woes

July 16, 1998|By Erin Texeira | Erin Texeira,SUN STAFF

ATLANTA -- William H. Miller's sprawling pecan, cotton and peanut farm 125 miles south of here has been in his family more than a century. Last month came word that he may lose the 1,300 acres to the federal government.

Like many small farmers, Miller, 67, battles shrinking profits, international competition and big-business agriculture in the fight for his farm. But unlike many, he also believes he battles racism.

"I was born on that land," said Miller, 67, an African-American whose concerns were among those addressed yesterday at the NAACP's annual convention. "I don't want to lose it on my watch. But if we stay the course, in 20 years [black farmers] won't be here anymore."

Miller and more than 500 other black farmers nationwide have filed two lawsuits -- the first nearly two years ago, the other two weeks ago -- against the U.S. Department of Agriculture, charging racial discrimination in the distribution of loans and unfair foreclosure practices.

Yesterday, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People highlighted black farmers' problems through events and speeches. The organization's board passed a resolution supporting the farmers' struggle.

"We know that your pain is our pain -- that you are our members," Kweisi Mfume, president of the Baltimore-based group, told the convention hall of more than 1,000 members.

The resolution was approved moments after Agriculture Secretary Daniel Glickman acknowledged in a speech that his department shoulders much of the blame for the dismal reality of many African-American farmers:

In 1900, about 25,000 black farmers owned 14 percent of U.S. farm land. Today, about 18,000 black farmers own 1 percent.

Roughly 56 percent of all land held in foreclosure by the department comes from black farmers. At the current rate of loss -- 9,000 acres a week -- there will be no black farmers by 2000, according to activists for the farmers.

Speaking before Glickman, J. L. Chestnut, a lawyer representing the farmers, predicted that Glickman would deliver a standard speech catering to blacks and "tell you things are going well."

Amid gasps and applause, he continued: "The Department of Agriculture is the last plantation."

Glickman -- who is a defendant in the lawsuits -- acknowledged that black farmers have suffered unfair treatment. "For years and years and years [racial discrimination] was just accepted, just as many things in agriculture were accepted," he said. "I have acknowledged it has existed and still exists in some places today. We have not done enough. I accept that."

Farmers often borrow federal money to stay afloat, but black farmers say the government forecloses on them faster than on their white counterparts. The Agriculture Department has resolved 14 of hundreds of complaints filed by black farmers, who allege that white farmers are given easy access to loans while black farmers often must wait years for such assistance -- if it comes at all.

The department has awarded two black farmers financial settlements of their complaints, said Chestnut. One of the two is John Boyd, a Virginia farmer who heads the National Black Farmers Association. Boyd would not reveal his settlement amount but called it "fair to my family and fair to taxpayers."

The resolution the NAACP approved supports the farmers' appeal for an extension of the two-year statute of limitations on the USDA complaints. The extension is expected to be granted by the U.S. District Court in Washington.

As part of the resolution, the NAACP asked the federal government to set aside loans for black farmers.

For many, the resolution marks a key step in building solidarity among African-Americans on supporting black farmers.

"For the first time, I can remember, a major civil rights organization and other major entities have taken up the cause of black farmers," Chestnut said at a news conference. "This is a fundamental change in strategy in black America."

Early yesterday, farmers from Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia held a prayer vigil at the Richard Russell Federal Building here and marched a half-mile to the steps of the Georgia World Congress Center.

Singing "We Shall Not Be Moved," many linked the farmers' movement to the NAACP's civil rights agenda. "Young black farmers will have no future to plant because the USDA is planting the seeds of discrimination," read a sign held by the 6-year-old daughter of a Georgia farmer.

Sherman D. Witcher, a 35-year-old farmer from Rocky Mount, Va., marched alongside his wife, a teacher, and their three children.

"We have so many of our young people in prison because we have nothing to pass on to them," he said. "They have stolen our legacy."

Pub Date: 7/16/98

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