by Dr. Sybil C. Mitchell

Now is the time to strike – while the iron is hot, so to speak.

A VIP invitation to leaders of the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association (BFAA) make them hopeful that more than $1.2 billion will finally be paid out to African-American farmers who were wronged by the Department of Agriculture.

Some 40,000 farmers were denied loans and other forms of assistance from 1981 up through 1996, according to a lawsuit that was filed on their behalf. Thousands had contacted the federal agency to report that local bureaus were loaning to their white counterparts, but systematically denying them any access to help.

“Our lack of advocacy has hurt us,” said BFAA President Thomas Burrell. “We feel we have to go to Washington while we have the President’s ear. He can issue an executive order to direct that the money set aside to compensate black farmers for earlier discrimination be immediately paid out.”

BFAA President Thomas Burrell and COGIC Bishop David A. Hall Sr. were on a mission at the American Farm Bureau Federation’s Convention in Nashville. (Photo: Patricia Rogers)

Congress approved the $1.2 billion settlement in 2010 in what has become known as “the Pigford case.”

More than two years after President Obama signed a law compensating black farmers for decades of discrimination by federal agriculture officials, the farmers are still waiting for their money.

“The justice department continues to appeal the case,” said Burrell. “President Trump can order them to stop the appeals. He has the power to end it right now. That would be a great tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as we approach the 50th anniversary of his death in April.

“I only just found out two years ago that Dr. King was scheduled to deliver a speech about farmers in May of 1968, but of course, he was assassinated in April. One phase of economic development in the black community had to do with farming. I don’t think many people are aware of that.”

In October of last year, the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled against the Justice Department and in favor of the farmers.

Most who have filed claims live in Mississippi and Alabama. Others are from Louisiana and other parts of the rural South.

The delays, said Burrell, have cost black farmers loss of land and equipment, since they are at a financial disadvantage.

“They have waited for years to be compensated, he said. “It’s well past time for them to receive their money. “We think this administration is the key.”

The BFAA has been training young people to become modern farmers in 21st century America. They are being taught how to use modern equipment and the value of purchasing chemicals for mass production.

“Thomas Jefferson said ‘Farming is God’s country,’” said Burrell. “We’re bringing young people back to the land, back to farming, their roots. “People in the city are growing food in cardboard boxes and in small gardens in their back yard because this is where we came from. Wealth has always been tied to the land.”

In 1910, African-Americans owned per capita (per person) more land than whites, according to the BFAA. Blacks owned 19 million acres of land then. Today, it is 2-2,5 million acres.

Bishop David A. Hall Sr., ecumenical advisor to the BFAA, said, “Many people take issue with President Trump for one reason or another. But we can’t allow our grievances to overshadow the opportunities.”

Said Burrell: “A great man, my father, Christopher Burrell, felt that black people have deeply spiritual and intuitive ties to the land. He always said that God kept black folk on the farm during the depression. There was no welfare or food stamps. People were starving in the city. But black people on the farm grew their own food. They were still poor, but they always had something to eat.”

The BFAA continues to conduct informational meetings across the South. The next meeting is scheduled for March 21, 2018, in Baton Rouge, La.