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Black farmers settlement deal at risk

http://66.225.205.104/JR20100326.mp3

Web Extra: Julie Rose speaks with several black farmers awaiting news of appropriation. Listen A month ago, the USDA and Department of Justice announced a long-awaited settlement for tens of thousands of black farmers who were the victims of discrimination. President Obama heralded the agreement and said it was time to move forward in resolving historic wrongs. But the deadline for Congress to pay the black farmers' claims is next week, and now the deal is at risk of falling apart. Many black farmers, including James Alston, Jr. have died waiting for justice from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "Daddy wanted to provide for his family, just like the white man wanted to provide for his," says Doretha Edwards, the eldest daughter of James Alston, Jr. "The settlement would just kind of make up for the things that he was not able to do." Edwards lives in Charlotte today, but grew up working the corn and cotton fields of her father's farm in South Carolina. He died the same year black farmers filed a class action lawsuit against the US Department of Agriculture for the discrimination Edwards felt even as a child. "I can remember the white farmers in the area, particularly this man everybody called him Big Mac," says Edwards. "I don't know if that was his name or not, but I do remember him driving the tractor and my father having one little mule and a plow." Like so many black farmers, Edwards says her father tried to get loans from the USDA and was denied. More than 10 years ago, the U.S. Government admitted it had discriminated against black farmers and promised to compensate them. About 15,000 black farmers were paid a total of nearly $1 billion. But tens of thousands more farmers, including James Alston's family, didn't hear about the settlement in time and were late to file their claims. In 2008, Congress decided to compensate them, too. And last month the USDA made a formal settlement to pay those late-filing farmers a total of $1.25 billion. "The USDA is excited about this opportunity to turn the page on what has been a troubling chapter for our department," says Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack when he announced the settlement last month. But there's a catch: Congress must appropriate that money by March 31. And so far it hasn't. Mid-week, North Carolina Senator Kay Hagan raised the alarm in a hastily-called press conference. "Congress must act immediately to insure this settlement is appropriated before the deadline passes next week," said Hagan. "As William Gladstone said, 'Justice delayed is justice denied.'" If Congress does not appropriate $1.15 billion for the settlement by March 31, the government and several dozen law firms representing the black farmers may be forced back to the bargaining table. (The other $100 million has already been earmarked for farmers' claims.) National Black Farmers Association President John Boyd knows Congress and the President have been preoccupied with health care. But he says black farmers can't wait any longer. They're aging. They're losing their farms. "It's not gonna bring the land back, but we certainly could close the chapter," says Boyd. "That's what the government likes to say. If they're sincere about closing this chapter, then they ought to pay up." Boyd is frustrated. But there are others who feel encouraged the black farmers are so close to closure. Like Lupe Garcia, who farms chili, cotton, pecans 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," says Garcia. He and other Hispanic farmers also sued the USDA for discrimination a decade ago. They have yet to be granted class status in their lawsuit. But the USDA is not denying their claims. Nor does it deny that Native American ranchers and farmers were passed over for loans and aid because of their race. The USDA is working to settle with both groups. Once it closes the chapter on discrimination against black farmers, it will have other pages to turn. Congress Fails To Fund Settlement For Black Farmers (NPR)