February 17, 1998
Contacts:  Jerry Pennick  & Heather Gray 
 (404) 765-0991
Black Farmers Attend Civil Rights Town Hall Meeting 
At Federation/LAF 15th Annual Farmers Conference In Albany, Georgia
Attorney J.L. Chestnut Contends Two Black Farmer Class Action Suits
Are In The Offing
Atlanta, GA...On Saturday, February 14, the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund (Federation/LAF) held a Town Hall Meeting with approximately 200 Black farmers and supporters as part of its 15th annual Farmers Conference, Marketing and Trade Show. Speaking to farmers was Attorney J. L. Chestnut, who represents the Black farmers in the Pigford vs USDA class action law suit and Lloyd Wright, Director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Office of Civil Rights. The focus of the Town Hall Meeting was the class action suit recently filed by Black farmers against the USDA and the implementation of USDA programs to end the systematic discrimination experienced by Black farmers. 

Based on their past experiences, many Black farmers throughout the country might find themselves in the class action suit referred to above. The law suit was originally filed against the government in Washington, DC on August 28, 1997 on behalf of Black farmers Timothy Pigford of North Carolina, Lloyd Shafer of Mississippi and George Hall of Alabama and has since become a class designation. 

For decades, farmers of color and their advocates have complained about the entire USDA infrastructure, much of which was poignantly and often painfully presented before the USDA Civil Rights Action Team which  held "listening forums" around the country in January 1997. Patterns of complaints became quickly apparent, which included lack of representation on local Farm Service Agency (FSA) county committees; loan practices in which, even if farmers were fortunate enough to secure a loan, the money often was reduced came too late to be of benefit; discriminatory attitudes of USDA officials and/or not being provided information about farm programs; lack of accountability by USDA employees on civil rights issues; lack of response to civil rights complaints, etc.   The findings from the listening forums then led to the development of a document listing procedures to redress the years of discrimination experienced by minority farmers. 

J. L. Chestnut of Chestnut, Sanders & Sanders in Selma, Alabama, one of the attorneys representing the farmers, explained at the Town Meeting that under recommendation from the government, the federal judge in the case asked attorneys to attempt to mediate complaints with the USDA, on a case-by-case basis. The judge further stipulated that if the mediation of the individual cases broke down he would  "certify" the class and the Black farmers could then pursue the suit against the USDA in court. "We have been mediating for three weeks and we have not been able to settle a single case out of twelve" said Chestnut. He said further that the mediation is not working because, for one, the government is not offering enough compensation to the farmers, and "that if we go case-by-case it will take until the year 2050," he said. "The government wants to pay a little money here and a little money there, and stretch it out to eternity." 

In the midst of the mediation the government has stated that some farmers will not be able to participate because of a statute of limitations - essentially that the farmers did not file their complaints within two years of the discriminatory action. Regarding the statute of limitations, Chestnut's response to the government is that in 1983 the Reagan administration abolished the USDA Office of Civil Rights where farmers would have filed a complaint. This office has only recently been reinstituted under the Clinton administration.  "How can you charge my folks for not having filed on time when there was no way to file it" he asked. 

Chestnut also expressed concern that mediation behind closed doors does not provide the opportunity for Black farmers to tell their case to the American public. "Americans need to hear from you"  he told Black farmers.  "America needs to know what your own government has done to you over the years." Another issue of concern is the concept that discrimination is aimed at the individual and not at the group. "That's the biggest lie that's ever been told," Chestnut said. "I'm almost 70 years old and I cannot think of a single instance where discrimination was aimed at me but not at everybody else who looks like me. What the Department of Agriculture has been doing over the years has not been done to some selective Black farmers, it's been done to every Black farmer." 

It is likely that two class action suits will ultimately be filed against the government by Black farmers. The size of the class in the present suit is relatively small, amounting to about 5,000 Black farmers who have filed complaints of discrimination. "But I've got another class," said Chestnut, "and that's the class of farmers who didn't file complaints." Chestnut contends that will be a huge class of farmers and that he will "bring it forward at the proper time."  He said further that "we intend to go forward with the mediation until the end of February and if we have not made progress we're going back to court and we're going to have a trial and we're going to put ya'll on the stand and we're going to ask for billions of dollars because you're entitled to it. Because what has happened to you would not have happened except that you are Black." 

It is well known that problems abound within the USDA infrastructure, in fact, the USDA has often been referred to as the last plantation due to its discriminatory practices, but efforts are in process to change that. For one, the reinstituted USDA Office of Civil Rights is now in need of developing new systems.  Lloyd Wright, Director of the USDA Office of Civil Rights, stated that "We've developed a process for handling complaints. We now have twenty-eight people to investigate complaints - fourteen permanent employees and fourteen one year contract employees. (In fact), in the last four months we've added about forty people (in the Office of Civil Rights). We've also developed a process for handling your complaints. We have an accountability unit that is designed to hold both agency heads and employees accountable. If you file a complaint and it's timely - within two years of the action - we put a stop on any negative action such as foreclosing. We will investigate (your complaints) and in the future try to resolve them in 180 days  - not six or more years as we've done in the past." Wright also stressed to farmers the importance of keeping good records about problems now and in the future. 

Wright admitted that much more within the USDA needs to be changed. While stating that he did not think there was a "conspiracy" to take Black owned land, he said the effects were almost the same due to the lack of services and fairness provided minority farmers. Regarding this, farmer Eddie Slaughter of southwest Georgia complained about the attitude of many county Farm Service Agency employees. "You have not done anything about those county supervisors that are over us. I refuse to go into those offices because I refuse to have them talk down to treat me like a dog."  It is clear that the recommendations in the Civil Rights Action Team report are still in process of  implementation and the effects of discrimination are still being felt by farmers. 

Questions remain as to whether farmers should join the class action suit or attempt to settle with the USDA. It is likely that farmers currently experiencing discrimination should work within the USDA infrastructure now created to handle complaints,. For farmers who have filed complaints in the past, Chestnut did not rule out that some cases of discrimination might best be served in negotiations and settlement with the USDA. In both instances, however, farmers  should first talk with an attorney to determine whether to negotiate or join the law suit. For those farmers who are not satisfied with the government's efforts to settle their complaints, they should definitely consider joining the law suit. Chestnut also stressed that farmers should not immediately sign with attorneys to represent them without first consulting with others, particularly to understand the terms of attorney compensation. For example, the three law firms litigating on behalf of Black farmers in the class action suit have filed papers with the government stating that they will not accept the traditional 35% attorney fee from farmers - rather all the monies garnered from the law suit will go directly to the farmers. The attorneys will later appeal to the government for attorney fees. The firms in the class action suit are Chestnut, Sanders & Sanders of Selma,  Alabama at (334) 875-9264;  Sweet, Frazier & Langston in Jackson, Mississippi at (601) 969-1356; and Conlon, Frantz, Phelan, &  Pires in Washington, DC at (202) 331-7050. 

Note: The Federation/LAF, now in its 31st year,  assists Black family farmers across the South with farm management, debt restructuring, alternative crop suggestions, marketing expertise and a whole range of services to ensure family farm survivability.