A coalition of groups gathered on the north steps of City Hall Wednesday to rally in support of the continuing search for justice by black farmers and black employees of the United States Department of Agriculture and to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the assassination of civil rights leader Medgar Evers.
The coalition brought together Arkansas Delta Agricultural Enterprise Cooperative Inc., the Independent Black Farmers and the USDA Coalition of Minority Employees.
Organizer Michael McCray said that Pine Bluff was chosen as the site of the rally in part because a major class-action discrimination lawsuit was brought against the USDA by local employee Beverly Burkett.
“Ms. Burkett worked for the USDA in Pine Bluff and Star City,” ADAECI board member Irma Preston said. “On June 4, 2013, she was ordered to clear out her desk and to leave her office and not come back and was placed on administrative leave. This came after she filed a discrimination lawsuit against the USDA. This is an example of how the USDA retaliates against its employees. The struggle for justice is very much alive and well. Such practices shall not be tolerated.”
Members of the Independent Black Farmers group came from as far away as Alabama, Georgia, Oklahoma and Mississippi to get their message out.
Black farmers lawsuits
Black farmers filed suit against the USDA in the late 1990s alleging systemic discrimination based on race that in some cases led to the confiscation of farms by the federal government.
“There is a false perception out there that all of the black farmer cases against the federal government have been settled but that is not true,” McCray said. “Many of them fell through the cracks and are still fighting to this day for justice.”
When asked if allegations of widespread fraud within the Pigford I and Pigford II class action discrimination lawsuits filed on behalf of black farmers against the USDA were distracting from legitimate grievances, McCray said that this was true to some degree.
“There is no truth to anyone trying to discredit the legitimate complaints of many black farmers against the federal government,” McCray said. “There is always some fraud in class-action suits like this and believe me, the crooks should go to jail. That also includes those within the government who have done wrong.”
Muhammad Robbalaa is a farmer from southeast Oklahoma.
“When it comes to the discrimination that we are fighting against, some of us are still talking about it as a matter of civil rights but we should be calling it an issue of human rights,” Robbalaa said. “Farmers were the first people that God praised. If not for the farmers, nobody would be fed. Black folks need land. Without land we are a stateless people and that makes us slaves. Farming is in our blood. Black farmers have not had any justice. We can’t farm if the USDA doesn’t treat us right. They have put us out of farming.”
Leroy Smith is a farmer from Cary, Miss.
“I have been dealing with discrimination by the USDA since 1991,” Smith said. “I am a Vietnam veteran and have served my country in the National Guard. I love this country like anyone else so why is it that I have been discriminated against simply because of the color of my skin? I never thought that I would still be having to deal with this type of thing.”
Smith said that he attempted to file for a USDA farm loan in 1992 after starting a small farm the year before, and was denied after he was told the agency had no copy of his tax return.
“I tried to file again in 1993 and was denied again,” Smith said. “In 1994 I filed a discrimination claim against the USDA.”
Smith said that he had 1,740 acres of farm land in 1993 and ended up losing all of it due to the actions of the USDA.
“I filed for bankruptcy in 2005 and the judge discharged my debt,” Smith said. “But three years later, the USDA sent me a collection letter on those debts. This was just harassment and discrimination.”
Federal attention sought
Smith said that he wanted to see President Barack Obama show more leadership on the issue.
“The President says that the buck stops with him so why won’t he straighten out this mess?” Smith asked. “We want the President to send someone from the White House to discuss these issues with us. Why doesn’t he settle it?”
Michael Stovall from Town Creek, Ala., and Robert R. Binion from Clanton, Ala., are farmers who lost their land due to what they allege are discriminatory actions taken by the USDA.
“I was the fourth plaintiff in the first Pigford lawsuit,” Binion said. “I used to have 1,000 peach trees and 30 acres of watermelon. We are independent because others have let us down. We need to come together as blacks and Muslims and any whites who agree with us to make sure that this gets settled once and for all.”
Ferrell Oden of Birmingham, Ala., owned a catfish and beef cattle farm before USDA actions allegedly resulted in the loss of his business.
“I filed a discrimination suit after a two and a half year investigation,” Oden said. “The settlement the USDA offered me was not a fair settlement but the judge told me and my attorney that the USDA did me a favor and that I should be thankful that I was discriminated against. When I refused the offer the USDA sent the Alabama Department of Human Services to close me down. It didn’t work. The judge told me I was entitled to injunctive relief but denied it because they said I was going to enter into a financial windfall with the settling of the lawsuit. It amazed me that the judge thought this discrimination would end up being a good thing for me.”
Dale Charles, state chair of the Arkansas National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, spoke about the life and assassination of civil rights leader Medgar Evers in Jackson, Miss., on June 12, 1963.
“Medgar Evers served his country in the U.S. Army during World War II, yet he found upon returning home that his skin color was still a deterrent,” Charles said. “He was working to achieve voter registration for African Americans at the time he was assassinated. Today we are here to pay homage to Medgar Evers as well as to the black farmers who are long overdue to get their justice in a court of law in America. We know that fight with the USDA is not easy and that is long standing. We must continue to fight and have the fortitude and courage that Medgar Evers had attempting to bring equality to all Americans.”
Jaleel Muhammad of the Nation of Islam spoke of his group’s support for the goals of the black farmers.