ATLANTA... The weekend of August 16 to 18, 2007, the Federation of Southern Cooperatives celebrated its 40th anniversary with its 40th Annual Meeting, 6th annual Estelle Witherspoon Lifetime Achievement Award Banquet and a full discussion of the 2007 Farm Bill and its impact on Black farmers.
Over 600 members and supporters attended the Thursday banquet at the Sheraton Civic Center Hotel at which Tavis Smiley and State Senator Hank Sanders received the award named for the former manager of the Freedom Quilting Bee and founding member of the Federation from Wilcox County, Alabama.
In his remarks after receiving the award, Tavis Smiley, who is a radio and TV host and analyst and author said, “ You can’t lead people, if you don’t love people. And, you can’t save our people if you don’t serve our people”. The important question is - are you committed? What is the depth of your love and the quality of your service?
“Commitment is the essence of my life. At the end of your life, someone will ask you these questions and ask you did you stay committed. Where are your scars? Was there anything that you were willing to stand up for and sacrifice for?”
Smiley praised the Federation - its members. board and staff for their dedication and willingness to work together for forty years to build an organization and work for Black farmers and other low income rural people.
In accepting his award, Hank Sanders also praised the Federation for its work over forty years and said that the number 40 was very symbolic.
“In the Bible, in Noah’s story it rained for 40 days and 40 nights; Moses spent 40 years in Pharaohs house, 40 years in the desert before being chosen to lead the Jewish people out of bondage in Egypt; they spend 40 more years in the wilderness before reaching the promised land. Elijah fasted for 40 days; 40 acres and a mule were need after slavery for economic freedom; this 40 years symbolizes a sustained period of struggle. The Federation has been tested, you are now prepared to give greater leadership in the struggle for Black and poor people to get full justice,” said Sanders.
Sanders also said he didn’t feel he deserved the award but was accepting it on behalf of his efforts as a vessel to help many other community based groups in the Alabama Black Belt to achieve success and benefits for the people.
Sanders recognized Mrs. Estelle Witherspoon’s efforts to “make beautiful quilts from leftover pieces of cloth. She made what she needed with what she had. She didn’t let a sixth grade education stop her from meeting with the Smithsonian curators or the department store buyers or U. S. Senators. She did what she needed to do to help the people in her community”.
The event was co-chaired by Congressman James Clyburn of South Carolina, who as Majority Whip is the third ranking member of the U. S. House of Representatives and Chuck Snyder, who is President of the National Co-op Bank, located in Washington, D. C. Both Clyburn and Snyder recognized the Federation for its long track record of helping poor people in distressed rural communities. Snyder also recalled that the Freedom Quilting Bee, managed by Mrs Witherspoon, made one of the first loans from the National Cooperative Bank in the 1980’s for $25,000 to purchase inventory and supplies.
Black farmer lawsuit discussed at workshops in Epes
On Friday and Saturday, the venue for the meeting shifted to the Federation’s Rural Training and Research Center, near Epes, Alabama.
Workshops on Youth and Women in Agriculture were held on Friday morning. These were followed by a discussion of the importance of farmers participating in the 2007 Census of Agriculture, which is scheduled for late in the year.
In the afternoon, Congressman Artur Davis of Alabama visited the meeting to discuss some of the provisions of the 2007 Farm Bill which has passed the House of Representatives. Davis explained the behind the scenes work by the members of the Black Congressional Caucus, including John Conyers, Sanford Bishop, Benny Thompson, Sam Butterfield and Bobby Scott, with the House Agriculture Committee to include provisions which will allow over 70,000 Black farmers who were “late filers” in the Pigford class action lawsuit to have their claims heard.
More than 95% of the farmers who filed a late claim in the Pigford lawsuit have not had the chance to file an actual claim in the case and have their case heard on their merits. The language in the House passed Farm Bill would provide two routes for these claimants to get their cases heard in court. One would provide the opportunity for an entirely new case and the other would allow farmers to pursue administrative remedies similar to those available in the original Pigford case.
Davis said, “this is not a done deal yet. we must get the Senate to approve these provisions and the President must sign the Farm Bill. Once this happens, we hope that Black farmers working together, through organizations like the Federation, can select lawyers who will work in their interest to get a favorable result in court.”
Davis also said, “this is not the only step we need to take in the Farm Bill, we need to strengthen other provisions that will help low income and Black farmers, including special set-aside provisions in the specially crop sections which will help socially disadvantaged farmers.”
In its business meeting on Saturday, the Federation’s membership passed a resolution commending the Black Congressional Caucus for its support and urging farmer members to contact their Senators to support the 2007 Farm bill provisions which would allow late claim filers in the Pigford case a second chance to have their claim heard on their merits.
The resolution also suggests that Black farmers not sign any legal contracts or send money to any Black farm organizations until the final Pigford correction legislation is passed. Then the farmers should work with the Federation and the Congressional Black Caucus to formulate a legal strategy to gain the best advantage for the late claim filers and others interested in participating in the case.
For more information, you can contact the Federation in Epes, Alabama at 205/652-9676 or visit their website at www.federation.coop.