Senate Finally Votes to Pay Black and Native Farmers

It took nearly three decades, but the payout is among the largest civil rights settlements in history.

By Jamilah King Nov 23, 2010

It’s about time. After decades of legal wrangling and several stalled attempts in the Senate, a payout of $4.5 billion has been approved to settle longstanding claims of government discrimination against black and Native American farmers.

On Friday, the Senate approved $1.5 billion to settle claims with black farmers in the Pigford II case. That decision was followed by the upper chamber approving a separate amount of $3.4 billion to settle with aggrieved Native American farmers who alleged that the Department of Interior had badly mismanaged money accounts.

Senator Harry Reid is already claiming this as one of his big lame duck victories.

"Black farmer and Native American trust account holders had to wait a long time for justice, but now it will finally be served," Reid said in a statement according to The Hill. "I am hearted that Democrats and Republicans were able to come together to deliver the settlement that these men and women deserve for the discrimination and mismanagement they faced in the past."

The payout has been a long time coming. Black farmers had accused the government in a lawsuit of favoring white farmers for loans. That case was settled way back in 1999, and the deal was, and remains, among the largest civil rights settlements in history. But it’s taken over a decade — and nine failed attempts before the Senate — for lawmakers to actually approve the funds and begin the long process of paying the debt.

The money was finally approved as part of an extension of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program.

In an interview on, Dr. John Boyd, president of the National Black Farmers Association talked about how the Shirley Sherrod fiasco actually helped bring attention to the case.

It gave validation to what we had been saying for years–how the USDA had mistreated Black farmers, and also Black employees. We still have an employee problem at USDA. She’s an example of that because we have nearly 80,000 Black farmers that said they were discriminated against, and no one’s been fired. Yet they fired this woman on the spot because they thought she’d mistreated a White farmer. I call that a triple standard. We have a long way to go with the Department of Agriculture. The fact is, there’s a terrible distrust between the Black farmers and the USDA–they treated us worse than the dirt on the ground–and that’s not going to go away tomorrow. But paying the farmers will certainly put us a step further in the healing process.

Jefferson Keel, president of the National Congress of American Indians, spoke to NPR on Monday about the ordeal.

"It’s been such a long time coming and such a painful process," Keel said on "Tell Me More." "We’re just happy that we’re finally at a point where we can work with Congress and I’m happy to say that Congress has finally moved these things forward."