Mark Wilson/Getty Images
In 2002, five years after a group of black farmers sued the U.S. Department of Agriculture, these men traveled from Manning, S.C., to join a protest outside the USDA.
In 2002, five years after a group of black farmers sued the U.S. Department of Agriculture, these men traveled from Manning, S.C., to join a protest outside the USDA. Mark Wilson/Getty Images
A month ago, the federal government promised it would pay more than $1 billion by the end of March to thousands of black farmers who complained of discrimination by the Department of Agriculture.
But Congress left on its spring recess without appropriating money to make the payments.
And that leaves the farmers waiting for justice — yet again.
A number of black farmers who started the case have already died. James Alston Jr. was one of them.
"Daddy wanted to provide for his family, just like the white man wanted to provide for his," says Alston's daughter, Doretha Edwards. "And the settlement would just kind of make up for the things that he was not able to do."
Edwards lives in Charlotte, N.C., today, but she grew up working the corn and cotton fields of her father's farm in South Carolina. He died in 1997 —- the same year black farmers filed a class action lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
In the suit, the farmers said their requests for low-interest loans were either denied outright or delayed so long they missed the planting season. Even as a child, Edwards says, she knew it was discrimination.
"I can remember the white farmers in the area, particularly this man, his name — everybody called him Big Mac," Edwards says. "I don't know whether that was his real name or not. But I do remember him driving the tractor and my father having one little mule and a plow."
More than a decade ago, the USDA admitted it had discriminated against black farmers and promised to compensate them. About 15,000 black farmers were paid a total of more than $900 million.
But Alston's family and thousands of others didn't hear about the settlement in time, and they filed late claims. In 2008, Congress decided to compensate them, too.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced the settlement last month, saying, "The USDA is excited about this opportunity to turn the page on what has been a troubling chapter for our department."
As part of the agreement, Congress was to allocate $1.25 billion for the late-filing farmers by March 31. Vilsack and President Obama promised that would happen. But it hasn't. A handful of lawmakers raised the alarm in a press conference last week, as their colleagues packed for Easter recess.
"Congress must act immediately," Sen. Kay Hagan (D-NC) said. "As William Gladstone said, 'Justice delayed is justice denied.' "
Missing the deadline means the government and several dozen law firms may be forced back to the bargaining table. National Black Farmers Association President John Boyd says he knows Congress and the president have been preoccupied with health care — but he says black farmers can't wait any longer. They're aging, and they're losing their farms.
"It's not gonna bring the land back, but we certainly could close the chapter. That's what the government likes to say," Boyd said. "If they're sincere about closing this chapter, then they ought to pay up."
Boyd is frustrated at yet another delay in a fight that has already lasted more than a decade. But there are others who feel encouraged the black farmers are so close to closure. Like Lupe Garcia, who grows cotton and alfalfa in New Mexico.
"I hope this will pave the way for us to get in and have a just settlement for all of us," he said.
Garcia and other Hispanic farmers also sued the USDA for discrimination a decade ago. So did Native American farmers and ranchers. They all say they were unfairly denied loans and aid. To date, neither group has managed to settle with the government.
But the USDA is not denying their claims. Once it closes the chapter on discrimination against black farmers, it will have other pages to turn.