Originally created 02/15/99

Black farmers urged to accept settlement



ALBANY, Ga. -- A discrimination lawsuit against the U.S. Agriculture Department could result in a historical civil rights settlement for 7,000 black farmers across the country, the case's lead attorney said this weekend.

Alexander Pires told more than 500 farmers in Albany on Saturday that they could share up to $2 billion in discrimination payments with their counterparts across the country.

"This is the largest recovery in a civil rights case in the country," Mr. Pires told the farmers attending the Marketing and Farmers Conference at Albany Civic Center.

The farmers in attendance came from five states, mostly Georgia.

Mr. Pires was joined by U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Ga., and the Rev. Joseph Lowery of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Mr. Bishop, who serves as a member of the House Agriculture Committee, told the farmers that the Agriculture Department is willing to settle with them and to work to end discrimination in its lending practices.

"We are on the verge of cleaning up that long overdue mess," Mr. Bishop said. "We've got a long way to go to bring this to a closure, but we're making progress."

A number of farmers from Tennessee and Arkansas don't see the settlement as progress. They waved placards urging farmers to not take part in the settlement because it does not return land farmers may have unfairly lost to foreclosure.

"We're trying to let them know the other side," Tennessee farmer Thomas Burrell told The Albany Herald.

Farmers have several choices in the settlement, two of which include: accepting $50,000 in tax-free payments and writing off their USDA farm debt; or seeking a bigger settlement in a trial-like setting where proving discrimination could be more difficult.

Farmers also may "opt out" and press their individual case against the USDA separate of the class-action lawsuit.

The suit claims discrimination against minority farmers across the nation through denial of farm loans, crop subsidies and other benefits. It covers farmer discrimination cases from 1981 to 1997.

The Rev. Lowery told farmers the USDA owes them "recompense for its sins of the past."

State Rep. Lynmore James, D-Unadilla, agreed, urging farmers to stick with the lawsuit.

"If you try to undermine the process, there's something wrong with you," Mr. James said. "This whole issue is white, black and green. I'm not saying all black folks are good and all white folks are bad. It's about black and white and trying to get that green."

A federal judge will hold a "fairness hearing" on the settlement March 2.