African American Farmers and Civil Rights

By Daniel, Pete | The Journal of Southern History, February 2007 | Go to article overview
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African American Farmers and Civil Rights


Daniel, Pete, The Journal of Southern History


FORTY ACRES AND A MULE." JUDGE PAUL L. FRIEDMAN BEGAN HIS 1999 decision in Pigford v. Glickman, the successful class-action suit brought by African American farmers, with that familiar broken promise from the Civil War/Reconstruction era. The case concerned the sorry civil rights record of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and its denial of federal benefits to black farmers in the years after World War II and in particular the thirty-five years since the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The decline of black farmers alter World War II contrasted dismally with their gains in the half century after emancipation when, demonstrating tremendous energy and sagacity, they negotiated a maze of racist law and custom and--during the harshest years of segregation, peonage, and violence--gained land and standing in southern communities. By 1910 African Americans held title to some sixteen million acres of farmland; by 1920 there were 925,000 black farms in the country. In the teens and twenties, however, the graph of rising ownership faltered and then plunged downward. Depression, mechanization, and discriminatory federal programs devoured black farmers, but their fate was eclipsed by press coverage of school segregation, voting rights, and public accommodations. They almost disappeared without a trace. (1)

Racism circulated through federal, state, and county USDA offices, and employees at every level bent civil rights laws and subverted government programs in order to punish black farmers. Judge Friedman admitted that the Pigford case would "not undo all that has been done" but insisted it was "a good first step." By 2000, of course, it was too late for hundreds of thousands of black farmers. When Judge Friedman handed down his decision only months before the end of the millennium, there were but eighteen thousand black farms left, and many of those were endangered. Underlying Friedman's decision was a disturbing contradiction: black farmers suffered their most debilitating discrimination during the civil rights era when laws supposedly protected them from racist policies. While white farmers also lost land, black farmers endured not only similar economic forces but also USDA racism. The increase in USDA programs had an inverse relationship to the number of farmers: the larger the department, the more programs it generated, and the more money it spent, the fewer farmers who survived. (2)

For a century and a third, the U.S. Department of Agriculture presided over monumental changes in the U.S. countryside. Since its founding during the Civil War, the USDA has encouraged better farming methods, and over time its staff has swelled and its reach has extended to every crossroads and farm. Early in the twentieth century the Extension Service became a conduit for feeding farmers advice on the latest science and technology from experiment stations and corporations. Some farmers welcomed and utilized research findings, but others were skeptical of experts and outsiders. The USDA and its supporters denigrated farmers who did not accept the gospel of progress. Yet the substitution of science and technology for human experience and expertise deskilled farmers who relied increasingly upon formulaic methodology rather than husbandry. Knowledge handed down or gained by trial and error laded away. The human cost that accompanied the rise of agribusiness was eclipsed by the story of tractors and picking machines, insecticides and herbicides, and hybrids and genetically engineered crops. (3)

The term agribusiness came into vogue during the World War II era and in its broadest context refers to the farms, firms, and lobbying groups that thrive on the production, processing, storing, shipping, and marketing of food and fiber. Agribusiness's counterpart in the public sector, agrigovernment, often worked from a similar agenda and included the USDA's headquarters bureaucracy, complex of experiment stations, research facilities, regulation units, and acreage policy divisions; the land-grant universities; state agricultural offices; and county agricultural employees and committees.

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