Sherrod Debacle Frustrates Black Farmers The firing of Shirley Sherrod by the Department of Agriculture has reopened a sore spot with many African-American farmers who have been charging the USDA with discrimination for years. In fact, the USDA still faces thousands of discrimination lawsuits by minorities.

Sherrod Debacle Frustrates Black Farmers

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NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR: Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack appeared crestfallen yesterday as he apologized for the bungled firing of Shirley Sherrod, in part because it raised issues he'd been doing his best to settle during his year-and-a-half tenure at the department.

NORRIS: I was very sensitive and remain sensitive to the civil rights issues involving this department. When you're dealing with tens of thousands of claims - tens of thousands of claims - it is something that needs to be resolved that hasn't been resolved and must be resolved.

NAYLOR: John Boyd is president of the National Black Farmers Association.

NORRIS: This is what we call the last plantation. It's the last federal arm in this country to integrate. The United States Department of Agriculture, they filed lawsuits in federal court to prevent black workers from coming to work once they integrated. That's the history of the United States Department of Agriculture.

NAYLOR: I spoke to Boyd on the lawn of the Capitol, where he came today, up from his farm in Mecklenburg County, Virginia, to lobby Congress. Boyd was one of those discriminated against. In 1994, he was denied loans by a USDA agent in Richmond, Virginia, by the name of James Garnett(ph).

NORRIS: So that's - that can be very frustrating for, you know, a black person who's been out here 20, 26 years fighting discrimination.

NAYLOR: John Boyd.

NORRIS: I'm frustrated. I'm frustrated today that I'm still begging for votes in the Senate for something that should've been done years ago, and I'm frustrated to see that this country, the country that we live in, we still have not overcome race relations in this country.

NAYLOR: In Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, Willard Tillman spoke to me on his cell phone from the farmers' market, where he's brought some of his produce to sell.

NORRIS: Watermelons, cantaloupes, squash, greens, cabbage, tomatoes, okra.

NAYLOR: Tillman is also waiting for the second settlement to get funded. He says, though, that the money will come too late for some black farmers.

NORRIS: A lot of the people that are deserving of this have died, man - have died. They will never receive any of the benefits, or receive the justice that they needed to have during their lifetime.

NAYLOR: Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.

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