Conservatives Try To Bash USDA Anti-Racism Suit, Shirley Sherrod

July 22, 2010 4:51 a.m.

In defending his decision to fire Shirley Sherrod, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack explained multiple times that his department has a “sordid” and “checkered” history of both overt and institutionalized racism. But with the term “racism” being tossed around rather a lot recently, it is important to understand both what he meant — and what role that acknowledged racism played in Shirley Sherrod’s life.

It’s also important to understand that Andrew Breitbart’s timing of the release of the grossly distorted video of Sherrod, which he admits having had for weeks, may not be entirely random. Congress will soon vote on whether to fund part of a settlement between the USDA and African-American farmers who faced acknowledged discrimination — farmers like Sherrod and her husband used to be. It’s a tiny piece of the upcoming war supplemental bill.

The USDA settlements with African-American farmers are a longtime bête noire of the right, which they deem a giveaway to a core Democratic constituency. It’s not clear whether Brietbart’s release of the video was specifically intended to hurt the chances of other African-America farmers to receive recompense from decades of discrimination that caused them to lose their farms, but conservatives immediately used the video to attack the settlement. The discrimination claims, known globally as the Pigford settlement, is the elephant in the room, so here’s the background.For years, and continuing through the 1990s, the USDA denied loans and grants to scores of farmers simply because they were African-American. Timothy Pigford finally sued the department in 1997; the suit became a class action with 400 additional plaintiffs and 2,000 farmers thought eligible; and the result was what’s known as the Pigford settlement, decided in 1999.

The Pigford settlement offered two tracks: Track A offered $50,000 (plus loan forgiveness and tax offsets) to each eligible African-American farmer who had complained of discrimination since 1983, subject to applications and reviews; Track B offered the possibility of larger damages, provided plaintiffs could show a preponderance of evidence to arbitrators, prove their losses were greater than $50,000 and, of course, wait out the process. Less than 1 percent of the 22,721 class members chose to pursue Track B.

According to multiple sources that TPMmuckraker has not independently confirmed, Sherrod and her husband, Charles, were two of only 170 plaintiffs that chose Track B. Vilsack acknowledged in his press conference that Sherrod was a claimant in the Pigford settlement.

Earlier this year, Sherrod’s story was featured as part of the Fort Valley State University’s Middle Georgia Oral History Project. Her story describes her view of the incidents leading up to the end of her case before the Pigford v. Vilsack arbitrator.

Sherrod’s story is the first in the collection. The self-described farm girl grew up with five sisters. In 1963, a white farmer murdered her father, but was never prosecuted. The shocking incident inspired Sherrod, a young college student at FVSU, to join the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. There, she met and married its leader Charles Sherrod.

The couple traveled overseas, studying at a kibbutz. In 1968, armed with knowledge, the SNCC members returned to Georgia to develop a community. They obtained a 6,000-acre land trust in Lee County, Ga., for New Communities, Inc., established with other black families. They received funding for its development, but then-Gov. Maddox called a halt to further expansion. Despite the roadblock, the group pushed forward and built train tracks, sugar cane mills, grew corn, peanuts, soy beans and also processed meats.

The organization thrived until 1970s when a drought damaged crops causing a major loss of revenues. The group applied for an emergency loan but was denied. “The National Conservancy could have paid the debt on the land, but every time we wanted to do something, the doors closed because we were black,” Sherrod said. In 1985, the bank foreclosed on the property.

“They wanted to wipe all traces of us off the land,” Sherrod said. “They dug holes, took a bulldozer and destroyed all of our buildings.”

Nearly a decade later, the Sherrods filed a lawsuit. After legal wrangling and several incompetent lawyers, the case was brought before a judge who awarded the couple and New Communities, Inc., almost $13 million ($8 million for the land, $4 million in lost income and $1 million in personal damages) in 2009.

Sherrod’s story is similar to those of many of the farmers who were denied loans commonly granted to white farmers, which was the reason for the initial Pigford suit and the initial settlement by the government.

But thousands of farmers missed the original Pigford deadline, due to shoddy work by their own lawyers and inadequate promotion, among other reasons. In response to a decades-long movement to re-open the Pigford class, Congress passed another $100 million in the 2008 farm bill to help settle new claims; earlier this year, the Obama administration announced an additional grant — called Pigford II — of $1.25 billion.

But the money hasn’t been doled out, because Congress hasn’t given the okay yet. It missed a March 31 deadline. Then a May 31 deadline. Currently, the money for the new Pigford settlement resides in the war supplemental — which Majority Leader Harry Reid announced last Friday would be up for a vote some time this week.

Harry Reid’s spokesman, Jim Manley, said it “remains unclear” whether the bill could pass with the settlement attached. The money was also included in the unemployment insurance extension; but the Pigford settlement, and other funds, had to be stripped in order to break a filibuster.

Conservatives immediately jumped on the Sherrod video — issued by Breitbart in the wake of Reid’s promise to bring the war supplemental (including the Pigford settlement money) to a vote — to condemn the Pigford case.

Rep. Steve King (R-IA), for example, tweeted immediately on Tuesday morning, after the Sherrod case hit the news, that many Pigford claims amount to fraud:

Shirley Sharrod fired by Vilsack 4 racism in her USDA position. America needs to know that, not all, but billion$ of Pigford Farms is fraud.

The Washington Times mused that Sherrod resigned because she was afraid the attention would expose “sanctioned conflicts of interest” arising from her own settlement — though there was zero evidence to that effect. In fact, Vilsack has since acknowledged that her experience as part of the Pigford class makes her uniquely positioned to understand the historical challenges faced by the USDA. Fox News piled on, saying the settlement “thickens the plot.”

Late update: Breitbart tells us Pigford had nothing to do with it.

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