LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Black farmers must strongly lobby the head of the Senate Agriculture Committee and other lawmakers to make sure Congress approves a $1.15 billion discrimination settlement, the president of the National Black Farmers Association said Saturday.
The proposal to pay claims filed by the farmers who say the U.S. Department of Agriculture discriminated against them was included in the budget President Barack Obama sent to Congress last week. Now people need to make sure it gets through, NBFA founder John Boyd Jr. told about 200 supporters at a rally in Little Rock.
He urged them to "light a fire" under Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln, a Democrat and the new head of the Senate agriculture panel, who faces a tough re-election campaign this year.
"Call them just as many times they asked you for your vote," Boyd said. "We want justice, and we want it now — no more waiting, no more excuses."
Lincoln said Saturday that she applauded Obama's commitment to settle the claims and was already working to get the money.
"I will continue to fight for the compensation owed to our minority farmers," she said in a statement.
The money would pay claims filed by farmers who say they were denied USDA assistance — loans or crop subsidies — because of their race. A lawsuit over the matter was filed in 1997 and settled in 1999.
But Boyd said that because discrimination in the USDA continues, some in the agency tried to keep word of that settlement from getting to many of those who would have benefited from the agreement to pay $50,000 each to black farmers who claimed discrimination. He said 80,000 claims for a share of the settlement were filed after a deadline had passed because most black farmers didn't know about the case.
The $1.15 billion — plus $100,000 already appropriated to set up a late-claims payment process — would provide a share of the settlement to those who filed claims after the deadline, said Boyd, of Baskerville, Va.
Farmers must push for the funding to be approved while Democrats control Congress, Boyd said, promising that his group would keep up the pressure at several other rallies in Southern states.
"We got the juice right now," he said. "We got to make it happen."
His urging generated an enthusiastic response.
"Are you with me today?" he asked several times. "Yes!" came back the shouts.
"Who you going to call?" Boyd asked. "Blanche Lincoln!" came the replies.
Lawrence Jefferson of Pine Bluff said he received $50,000 from the original settlement process because he had "tried to get a (USDA) loan and couldn't." But he said six brothers and sisters were denied a share of the settlement because they filed claims after the deadline.
Alvin Scott of Idabel, Okla., who is retired from farming cotton and corn, said he had also missed the cutoff. "I didn't know what was going on," Scott said.
Juanita Crump-Donahue of Little Rock said her family formerly owned land in Lonoke County that was used to raise cotton and soybeans, but missed the window to file a claim.
"The rest of us were not told about the settlement," Crump-Donahue said.
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.