Farmer, Followers Put Spotlight on Racism

By Peter Hardin, Times-Dispatch Washington Correspondent
May 30, 1999 A1

WASHINGTON– On the winter night that U.S. Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman unveiled a multimillion-dollar civil rights settlement with black farmers, he awkwardly saluted John W. Boyd Jr.

“Mr. Boyd sometimes was not the easiest person to see around these hallways, but he pressed the case of justice,” Glickman acknowledged as Boyd listened.

Yet a sharply different view came the next morning from Alexander J. Pires Jr., one of the leading attorneys who helped negotiate the record-breaking settlement with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Boyd is “the biggest hypocrite on earth,” Pires snapped angrily.

Since John W. Boyd Jr. of Mecklenburg County, Va., first brought 80 fellow black farmers to demonstrate outside the White House in December 1996, he has become a familiar figure in Washington, whether leading a street protest in farm denims with his mule named “Struggle” or walking the corridors of power in a three-piece suit.

That he’d win backhanded praise from a Cabinet member and denunciation from a would-be ally within 24 hours reflects the high profile Boyd has developed. The farmer from Virginia is a prominent and successful warrior in what some have called the last civil rights battle of the 20th century.

Movements can be messy.

Especially when millions of dollars from the U.S. government are at stake and there are rival groups, strategies and untested leaders. And this movement, born of conflict between the dwindling thousands of black farmers and the federal government, is no exception.

Pires looks at Boyd and sees an opportunist who zigzagged with prevailing political winds on the strategy of black farmers suing the government over discrimination and who claimed credit he didn’t deserve.

Boyd fires back that Pires falsely promised million-dollar awards for farmers if they settled and that Pires didn’t press hard enough for a fair accord. Each man denies the other’s charges.

A 33-year-old egg producer, Boyd is a bold activist who took on the government and triumphed. He won a $ 500,000 personal discrimination settlement from the USDA and persevered in Washington for other farmers. Today he wants to put movement disputes behind him and look instead at the balance sheet.

More than three decades after the nation’s modern-day civil rights guarantees were issued, Boyd and fellow black farmers have turned a national spotlight on lingering racism within the USDA and its system to deliver loans and benefits in rural areas.

President Clinton nicknamed Boyd “the agitator.”

Boyd’s “vigorous leadership is responsible for Congress focusing on the issue,” said Rep. Robert C. Scott, D-3rd, an ally who gives Boyd the highest praise. “Very few people are able to work the legislative process as well as he has.”

Sen. Charles S. Robb, D-Va., said Boyd consistently marshaled his forces and facts to make a forceful case to top Washington leaders, including Clinton, and then he followed up doggedly.

Boyd “was able to put a human face on the suffering that occurred over a long period,” Robb said.

From a hard start at running his own farm – Boyd supplemented his income by working as a dishwasher, as a janitor, and as a corrections guard – he went on to launch a personal crusade and then establish the Virginia-based National Black Farmers Association.

Now he’s traveling widely as president of the group, which claims 42,000 members and supporters. His office was converted from a garage adjoining his aging farmhouse near South Hill. Hanging on the wall are pictures of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.

It’s almost a decade since Boyd was a 24-year-old farmer who wanted to expand his operation by raising hogs. A white county Farmers Home Administration official tore his loan application in half and flicked it in the wastebasket.

” ‘This is too big an operation for a boy your age,’*” Boyd said he was told. Regarding a loan for repairs to Boyd’s home, the official suggested it would be cheaper to consider subsidized housing in South Hill.

Boyd kept struggling to make ends meet. There were other failed loan applications. He fell behind in payments and eventually declared bankruptcy while pursuing discrimination complaints against the government.

In 1996, the government moved to foreclose, and a large sign about an auction was put up in his yard. Boyd got out his power saw. He cut down the sign. Finally, in May 1997, the USDA settled with Boyd over a tangle of blatant government discrimination.

By then, the group that Boyd set up with a core of Virginia friends had tapped the anger and suffering of wider circles of black farmers, and Boyd was a leading spokesman on their behalf in Washington.

Driving the three hours to Washington weekly from his 173-acre farm in gently rolling Mecklenburg County, he continued to protest, meet with USDA officials and members of Congress, and shake things up.

There were risks. And rewards.

Boyd has received hate calls. Somebody virtually destroyed his pickup truck parked at home when he was on a trip to Washington. Once a car tailed him suspiciously all the way from Southside to the nation’s capital.

He’s also linked with black churches to organize and has lobbied Glickman, Attorney General Janet Reno, then House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Vice President Al Gore and Clinton. In December 1997, the president listened to the concerns of Boyd and fellow farmers for three hours in the Roosevelt Room of the White House.

Here are key changes that Boyd fought for:

*When a number of black farmers faced the possible loss of their farms, Glickman suspended foreclosures to see whether discrimination was involved.

*The USDA, where the investigative arm for civil rights was disbanded during the Reagan administration, resumed investigating black farmers’ complaints and negotiating individual settlements.

*Congress lifted a statute of limitations that prevented many farmers from receiving compensation even if they suffered discrimination by the USDA in denial of farm loans or other benefits. The victory was bipartisan and major.

The chapter that drew the greatest attention to black farmers, their civil rights lawsuit and the settlement with the USDA came on a front that Boyd did not endorse.

Boyd didn’t favor the courtroom battle. He thought farmers would do better to seek an administrative, across-the-board settlement with the USDA to get their seized land back from federal inventory, give them debt relief and possibly compensation. Such a settlement never materialized.

It was members of another new group calling itself the Black Farmers and Agriculturists Association that pursued the civil rights lawsuit, filed in 1997. Information obtained by Boyd’s group was shared with those who sued, Boyd said.

When a proposed court settlement was announced, Boyd hailed it as helpful to hundreds of farmers. Keys to the victory, he said then, included “the pressure we put on them in the street” and “the fact we did not go away.”

After the proposal’s details became better known, many black farmers attacked it at a court hearing. Boyd joined them. He has called it a “half loaf” that fell far short of assuring a fresh start to black farmers who suffered discrimination.

Despite many ringing criticisms of the settlement, an opinion by U.S. District Judge Paul L. Friedman accepting the pact affirmed the outcry about USDA discrimination from Boyd’s camp and other quarters.

Friedman lamented a decline in the United States from 925,000 black farms in 1920 to fewer than 18,000.

TheĀ  judge laid a large part of the blame on the Agriculture Department and its county committee system for administering local farm programs. In 1997, there were 37 blacks among 8,148 committee members nationwide. The 2,469 county committee members in the Southeast region included 28 blacks.

The lead farmer suing the government in that case, Timothy Pigford of Riegelwood, N.C., is not about to forget that Boyd favored a different battleground than the courtroom.

“The proof is in the pudding. The suit is entitled Pigford v. Glickman, not Boyd v. Glickman,” Pigford said.

“I think Mr. Boyd has done things that have helped. I think he’s also done some things that have hurt. I think we both wanted the same thing. We went at it two different ways.”

Yet Pigford also has criticized the outcome of the class-action lawsuit as inadequate and has chosen to pursue his own administrative settlement with the USDA.

Gary R. Grant of Tillery, N.C., president of Black Farmers and Agriculturists Association, would say only this about Boyd: “I don’t think we can take away from him the fact of his bringing this to national attention in 1996.”

A broader view came from Washington activist Lorette Picciano, who said credit for black farmers’ advances is due many groups, new and old. She singled out Boyd for snagging the attention of the news media.

“John emerged in his own frustration and anger with USDA in a way that’s very similar to the frustration and anger that is in many other places; and John was able to get media attention,” said Picciano, executive director of the Rural Coalition.

In Congress, leading supporters give Boyd extremely high marks for his political self-education, savvy and persistence.

“He knows how to work [Washington] inside and outside,” said Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., former chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus.

“He’s a strong, committed advocate with long staying power. He doesn’t go away,” Waters said. Boyd briefed her about the farmers’ issues during a weekend in the Bahamas, where her husband was stationed as ambassador.

A 6-foot-tall former high-school athlete, Boyd not only has proven a quick study about politics, he also clearly plays hardball.

He helped force suspension of a Texas lawyer with whom Boyd worked closely, then fell out. James W. Myart Jr. of San Antonio was suspended for a year beginning March 4 on several misconduct charges, according to the State Bar of Texas.

The charges included a Boyd complaint that Myart didn’t follow his wishes to seek nonprofit status for the National Black Farmers Association and instead incorporated it in Texas.

Boyd also has filed a $ 10 million lawsuit against Glickman and two aides over an alleged racial slur about Boyd by one of the aides.

The officials adamantly denied a slur was made. Their formal reply to the lawsuit asked for dismissal on legal grounds.

Curiously, the government commended its antagonist.

“Mr. Boyd is an effective and enthusiastic champion and advocate of the civil rights of minority farmers, lobbying Congress successfully to permit black farmers to lodge discrimination claims, and attempting to resolve problems between black farmers and USDA officials,” the reply said.

Did a desire for revenge partly fuel Boyd’s lawsuit?

Yes, Boyd concedes. He accuses the USDA of having made his life “living hell.” Not only did he face foreclosure but his wife left him amid difficult conditions and took their young son with her, Boyd said. They now are divorced.

Boyd is a transplanted New Yorker who came to his family’s homeland deep in Southside Virginia’s tobacco belt in his mid-teens.

When he lived in New York, his parents put him and his brother on a bus in the summer and sent them to Mecklenburg County to help out on their grandparents’ farm. After his grandfather got sick, the family moved back to rural Virginia.

“When we moved down here, it was to a screeching halt,” he recalled recently. He came to be grateful, however, for the move away from urban problems.

Boyd did well at sports and especially liked football, with the contact and the wildly enthusiastic crowd. Chances to go to college on a partial athletic scholarship were nixed because his family couldn’t afford the difference in costs.

He attended Southside Virginia Community College.

In 1985, he bought a rundown farm near South Hill with a loan approval from the Farmers Home Administration, then the credit agency of the USDA. He later received loans to build a poultry house and start a poultry operation.

But there were travails at farming and at other points with the FmHA. Some applications were ignored or delayed past planting time. He complained to the government, saying white farmers weren’t getting the same mistreatment.

A USDA finding late in 1996 said Boyd suffered “egregious failures of service delivery” in 1992 and 1994. His complaint alleging earlier discrimination was determined to have come too late.

Separately, Lloyd A. Jones, state director of USDA Rural Development in Virginia, wrote Glickman in January 1997 to report on his investigation of civil rights complaints from farmers in Southside and southeastern Virginia.

Farmers reaffirmed “extremely poor customer service” in Mecklenburg, Brunswick, Lunenburg, Nottoway and Southampton counties, Jones wrote. This pattern masked “entrenched subtle discrimination practices” by certain employees administering USDA programs, he wrote.

Some of those employees were given the choice of accepting reassignment offers or being “released from duty,” Jones’ memo said. In a recent telephone interview, he declined to disclose what action was taken.

“It is clear to me that the ‘good ol boy’ system is still a force to be reckoned with, even though we are on the verge of entering the 21st century,” Jones, who is black and grew up on a farm in Mecklenburg County, wrote in the 1997 report.

Boyd agrees. He also fears the recent federal court settlement did little to change the Agriculture Department’s deeply embedded culture and believes the agency still deserves to be called “the last plantation.”

“We still have the same faces in place,” he complained. “I’m afraid if we don’t clean the system up, 10 years from now we’ll be faced with the same thing.”

“What good,” he asked, “is an arm of the government for one race of people?”

Meanwhile, Boyd is personally seeking a second settlement from the USDA for discrimination. He wants to take advantage of Congress’ having liberalized the time period for which black farmers can seek compensation over discrimination claims.
His National Black Farmers Association has received a $ 500,000 USDA outreach grant, and, with it, Boyd is working to help black farmers seek USDA benefits and to qualify for compensation under the federal court settlement.
Keenly aware of the compelling nature of the black farmers’ story, he has interested Petersburg television producer Tim Reid in making a documentary about their movement if a financial backer is found.
Sometime, Boyd might consider a bid for Congress. Although a victory might seem improbable, he’s overcome improbable odds before.

He speaks with deep pride about black farmers who spoke out.

If this movement hadn’t come along when we did, no question in my mind we would have been wiped off the face of this country,” he said.”We were going out like fleas.”

Posted in My Work, Thu, 28/05/09