By Heather Gray
October 8, 2016
For some reason there seems to be an assumption that whatever Bill Clinton did during his administration might reflect on a Hillary Clinton presidency. Along this line, regarding Bill Clinton, much has been criticized about NAFTA, as well as welfare programs and the like. This comparative analysis is likely uncalled for but if it is to be done then we need to look at, among other things, the Clinton administration’s USDA and its impact on Black Farmers. Never in the history of the United States have we witnessed anything like this. In other words, some 130 years after the creation of the Department of Agriculture in 1862, finally there were significant efforts under Clinton to assist Black farmers. It was historic!
The following is a brief swath of history regarding Black farmers; their struggles; and what happened during the Clinton years.
The US Department of Agriculture was created on May 15, 1862 by Abraham Lincoln. This was one year after 7 southern states had seceded in January 1861 to form the “Confederate States of America” and after the Civil War had officially started in April 1861. It is highly unlikely that Lincoln would have been able to create the Department of Agriculture had the Southern legislators not left due to the secession. Unlike Lincoln, the southern legislator’s interest was not of creating an abundance of small independent and skilled white farmers, but rather the extension of slavery and plantations into the western states (see appendix “a”).
Fast forward to the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and the Freedman’s Bureau after the Civil War in 1865 during the “Reconstruction Era” (1865-1877) that assisted freed Blacks in acquiring land. Congress, however, did not specify that the Bureau assist freed slaves in purchasing the legendary “40 Acres and a Mule” or acquire “free” land as it had offered white farmers with the 1862 Homestead Act. Rather, the Freedman’s Bureau assisted black farmers in purchasing small acreage, as in 10 to 15 acres. Nevertheless, by 1910 there was a peak of land ownership for blacks. Collectively, blacks owned 15 million acres of land of which 218,000 black farmers were full or part owners. This was a remarkable achievement by the Black community.
Fast forward again to the 1930’s and Roosevelt’s New Deal administration which gave birth to Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace’s “New Deal” agriculture policies. During and after the 1932 depression, farmers struggled, and the New Deal’s USDA initiatives offered them program payments to help them stay in business. But the white plantation owners in the South, with representation in Congress, would not allow payments to go directly to black tenant or sharecropper farmers – rather they insisted the money go first to the white plantation owners who would then distribute the money to the black farmers who were farming on the white-owned land. As one can imagine, fraud persisted and on the whole the black farmers were locked out of receiving benefits from the USDA. This southern white attitude referred to above is forever known as the “plantation mindset” and while there are any number of definitions of it, on the whole it is known for its “racism, egocentrism, arrogance and greed” (see appendix “b”). So, even in spite of some of the progressive New Deal policies, little changed for the advancement of black farmers.
Fast forward once again to the 1960’s civil rights movement. In the South, it was often the independent black farmers who assisted the civil rights activists with resources and a land base to launch and maintain movement activities. The USDA employees and Congressional representatives throughout the region struck back against these farmers, as did the local bankers. Blacks began to lose a significant amount of land holdings, market opportunities and income overall. Many were forced out of the South (see Pete Daniel’s “Dispossession: Discrimination against African American Farmers in the Age of Civil Rights“).
However, the 1964 Civil Rights Act was significant in influencing government behavior and Black farm groups did not loose sight of this. For example, Title VI of the Civil Rights act states: “No person in the United States shall, on the ground of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”(Department of Labor) This, of course, applied to USDA programs.
In the 1960s, as a result and the Civil Rights legislation, coupled with black land loss, the black community in the South reacted to the hypocrisy and injustice of the USDA and southern bankers discriminatory actions. Many organizations were spawned to stop this land loss and assist farmers struggling against the USDA, the local bankers and, on a more positive proactive note, to assist these farmers with production and marketing opportunities.
For example, the Federation of Southern Cooperatives (Federation) was created in 1967 to assist Black farmers and rural communities in holding on to the land and utilizing cooperatives as a means of locally controlled sustainable economic development. The Emergency Land Fund (ELF) was created in 1972 to research the causes of black land loss and to develop and implement strategies to stem the tide. In 1985, the Federation and the ELF merged to become the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund. Other black organizations in the south joined the struggle and eventually coalitions developed to pressure both Congress and the USDA for change and equity, however neither Congress nor the USDA were as responsive as they could have or should have been.
There was an Office of Civil Rights at USDA thanks to the civil rights legislation, but in the early 1980s Reagan abolished it and it is said that under Reagan complaints from Black farmers were thrown in the trash.
Not to be deterred, however, the Federation’s staff member Jerry Pennick wrote an article in 1988 calling for a “Minority Farmer’s Rights Act” be passed by Congress that would offer federal monies for outreach and technical assistance to Black farmers. A coalition of organizations rallied around the call and eventually Congress agreed and the “Minority Farmers Rights Act” became Section 2501 of the 1990 Farm Bill. Although research has proven that 2501 has been effective, it has never been adequately funded and eventually the program has strayed away from its original intent to focus on farmers of color and those institutions and organizations of color that have a proven record of working on their behalf.
The Clinton administration overall, however, brought hope for a better future for Black farmers. And it was under Clinton, for the first time, that a president appointed someone black as the Secretary of Agriculture. This was Mike Espy from Mississippi.
In the 1980s Espy had represented Mississippi’s 3rd Congressional District. He was the first African-American to represent Mississippi in Congress since Reconstruction.
Clinton and Espy had known each other through southern Delta development initiatives and became friends. While in Congress Espy wrote and had passed legislation to develop the “Lower Mississippi Delta Development Agency ” that addressed poverty in the region. Reagan signed it into law. Clinton became president of the commission that was developed as a result of the legislation. This, for one, gave Clinton a unique insight into some of the struggles experienced by Black farmers.
However, If there was anyone who helped launch programs to assist black farmers and end the more than a century of discrimination at USDA, it was Mike Espy. I am told, right at the beginning of his term as Secretary, Espy held a meeting with the USDA staff in DC and essentially said that “we are going to deal with this racism both within the USDA and the discriminatory services to black farmers”. At the USDA then, it was Espy who set the wheels in motion for what would be an historic USDA eight years under Clinton to address the discrimination that minorities had experienced both as farmers and as staff at the USDA.
It is important to note that there is a distinction to be made between the political appointees, such as the Secretary being appointed by the President, and the permanent staff members in the government. These entrenched USDA staff members, who were of a plantation culture within the USDA, went after Espy with a vengeance and with bogus charges that were, after a few years, renounced by the federal court. I am also told that some of these USDA staff told Espy, “It took us 2 years to get rid of you. We didn’t think it would take us that long!“
But prior to him being ousted from USDA, Espy had begun significant efforts to change the USDA culture. Espy wisely knew that it there was going to be anything effectively done to assist black farmers there needed to be incontrovertible proof from the USDA itself about its discriminatory policies and its impact.
Espy had wisely placed on his staff K. Rashid Nuri as his Deputy Administrator for Management of the “Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service” (ASCS) and the USDA’s “Foreign Agricultural Service”. It is important to note that the ASCS later became the Farm Service Agency (FSA).
Rashid Nuri is black with a Harvard degree in political science, an MA from the University of Massachusetts in soil science, along with extensive international agricultural work in Africa and Asia. He was likely among the most qualified of the entire USDA staff (see appendix “c”).
At the behest of Espy, Nuri launched the disparity study of minority farmers to then begin the process of serious change and opportunities for “just” treatment of black farmers and other farmers of color. Apart from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in the past decades, a serious look at disparity treatment of minority farmers by the USDA had never been conducted by the USDA itself.
For this purpose, Nuri hired “J. D. Miller and Associates” in Atlanta, Georgia to conduct the study. In his introduction to the final report, Miller stated: “This study constitutes the most comprehensive to date of minority and female participation in FSA programs.” In a 2013 report from the “Congressional Research Service” it was noted:
In 1994, the USDA commissioned D. J. Miller & Associates, a consulting firm, to analyze the treatment of minorities and women in Farm Service Agency (FSA) programs and payments. The study examined conditions from 1990 to 1995 and looked primarily at crop payments and disaster payment programs and Commodity Credit Corporation (CCC) loans. The final report found that from 1990 to 1995, minority participation in FSA programs was very low and minorities received less than their fair share of USDA money for crop payments, disaster payments, and loans.
According to the commissioned study, few appeals were made by minority complainants because of the slowness of the process, the lack of confidence in the decision makers, the lack of knowledge about the rules, and the significant bureaucracy involved in the process. Other findings showed that (1) the largest USDA loans (top 1%) went to corporations (65%) and white male farmers (25%); (2) loans to black males averaged $4,000 (or 25%) less than those given to white males; and (3) 97% of disaster payments went to white farmers, while less than 1% went to black farmers. The study reported that the reasons for discrepancies in treatment between black and white farmers could not be easily determined due to “gross deficiencies” in USDA data collection and handling.
In other words, the USDA studied itself and found itself to be guilty of discrimination!
In the meantime, while the USDA staff had forced Espy out of the USDA, not to be deterred Clinton appointed Dan Glickman as Secretary of Agriculture to replace Espy. Thanks to the Miller report and its disparity study findings, Glickman virtually had no alternative but to start holding hearings across the country to learn directly from minority farmers about the discrimination they had experienced vis-a-vis the USDA. He also:
“ordered a suspension of government farm foreclosures across the country pending the outcome of an investigation into racial discrimination in the agency’s loan program and later announced the appointment of a USDA Civil Rights Task Force. On February 28, 1997, the Civil Rights Task Force recommended 92 changes to address racial bias at the USDA, as part of a USDA Civil Rights Action Plan.” (Congressional Research Service)
So the efforts to change the USDA culture and policies began in earnest.
In addition, under Espy as well as Glickman there was a deliberate effort to recruit African-Americans in key positions within the USDA.
For example, the head of Clinton’s USDA National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) was Pearlie Reid, who was black and also from Arkansas. Research across the South conducted by the Federation indicated that the USDA’s NRCS program under Reid was the least racist and most beneficial for the black farming community.
Throughout the Clinton presidency there were numerous civil rights gatherings and other activities aimed at moving the USDA toward equity and fairness. Examples of this include the Civil Rights Task Force and its reports. Of course these efforts were also prodded along by continuous pressure from community-based organizations like the Federation and others (see appendix “d”).
Finally and importantly, it was under the Clinton presidency, in 1998, that the largest lawsuit against the US government was filed (Pigford v Glickman) on behalf of Black farmers. It was filed under the auspices of the “Black Farmers & Agriculturalists Association”. The Obama administration then oversaw and helped to launch the second phase of the Pigford lawsuit for late filers:
The lawsuit was settled on April 14, 1999, by Judge Paul L. Friedman of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. To date, almost $1 billion has been paid or credited to more than 13,300 farmers under the settlement’s consent decree, under what is reportedly the largest civil rights settlement to date. As another 70,000 farmers had filed late and not had their claims heard, the 2008 Farm Billprovided for additional claims to be heard. In December 2010, Congress appropriated $1.2 billion for what is called Pigford II, settlement for the second part of the case (Wikipedia).
Under Clinton there was also a successful class action lawsuit by black USDA staff for the discrimination they had experienced at USDA. Also, following the black farmer class action lawsuit there were lawsuits filed by Native American farmers, Latino farmers and women farmers against the USDA.
There have been complaints about the Pigford lawsuit – it’s not perfect – but without a doubt it has sent a message to the USDA, Congress and the country overall regarding the need for change and demands for justice within the system.
To repeat, the Clinton era was historic in that it was the first administration to begin a process to address more than a century of discrimination against African-Americans by the USDA, Congress and local communities. This was a huge and politically risky move that is still bearing fruit. It also shows the importance of organized resistance at the grassroot level. But as they say in Southern Africa: “a luta continua” – “the struggle continues!”
Note: An expression of thanks to Jerry Pennick for his advice and edits.
This act required each state to show that race was not an admissions criterion, or else to designate a separate land-grant institution for persons of color. Among the seventy colleges and universities which eventually evolved from the Morrill Acts are several of today’s historically Black colleges and universities.
Later on, other colleges such as the University of the District of Columbia and the “1994 land-grant colleges” for Native Americans were also awarded cash by Congress in lieu of land to achieve “land-grant” status. (Wikipedia)
c. Rashid Nuri now lives in Atlanta and has played a leading role in urban agriculture in Atlanta with reverberations in the region and the country. He is the founder of the
d. Others from the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund engaged in the USDA’s civil rights meetings and activities were former Executive Director Ralph Paige and Director of Operations John Zippert. Others in the South central to organizing efforts with the USDA under Clinton were Calvin King of the Arkansas Land and Farm Development Corporation; Gary Grant of the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association; John Boyd of the National Black Farmers Association; Stephon Bowens and Savi Horne of the North Carolina Association of Black Lawyers & Land Loss Prevention Project; Eddie Carthan of the Mississippi Family Farmers Association; Willard Tillman of the Oklahoma Black Historical Research Project; Georgia Good of the Rural Advancement Fund; Edward Cline of the Texas Landowners Association; Hezakeiah Gibson of the United Farmers USA.”There were many others in the South and around the country who helped as well during this period including the National Family Farm Coalition, the Rural Coalition and the Farmers Legal Action Group.
Heather Gray is a writer and radio producer in Atlanta, Georgia and has also lived in