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Time for Congress to pay black farmers

By Roland S. Martin, CNN Political Analyst
  • Roland Martin: $1.15 billion settlement on behalf of black farmers has been reached
  • Money was to be paid by March 31, but Congress recessed without acting, Martin notes
  • Big opportunities were denied these farmers for years by the government, he writes
  • The time for talk is over -- it's time to pay up, Martin writes

Editor's note: Roland S. Martin, a CNN political analyst, is a nationally syndicated columnist and author of "Listening to the Spirit Within: 50 Perspectives on Faith," and the new book, "The First: President Barack Obama's Road to the White House." He is a commentator for TV One Cable Network and host of a Sunday morning news show.

(CNN) -- John Boyd is tired.

He's tired of having meetings with members of Congress. Tired of trying to talk with the Obama administration and the president himself. Tired of hearing people say that they sympathize with his effort to fight widespread and longtime discrimination by the federal government against the nation's black farmers.

But more importantly, he's tired of attending another funeral of an elderly black farmer, knowing full well that the man and woman never had the satisfaction of seeing the federal government honor its word and fund the $1.15 billion settlement stemming from a decades-long discrimination fight.

The settlement announcement between Boyd's group, the National Black Farmers Association, and the Obama administration stipulated that the money was to be paid by March 31, but Congress went on a recess without acting on the request.

This week, in between funerals of his dying membership, Boyd visited with the officials working with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, as well as President Obama, hoping someone would show some leadership and make the settlement a possibility.

Boyd even pushed the administration to grant the money on an emergency basis, but was told they would not support that effort, which would allow them to circumvent the congressional pay/go rules.

Yet all that has transpired is talk, but no action.

This whole battle began when a North Carolina farmer charged that the U.S. Department of Agriculture had for decades denied service and equitable loans to African- American farmers compared with whites. The class-action lawsuit initially was settled by the Clinton administration, known as Pigford I, but not all claims met the original deadline. The second settlement, known as Pigford II, is the current case.

It's understandable that Congress doesn't want to add more to the growing U.S. deficit, but what about the enormous opportunities denied to these black farmers for years by the same federal government? These men and women weren't asking for a handout. They were using their own hands to till land, grow crops, provide a way of life to send their children to college, and grow and prosper like every American. But it was clear racism that denied them of that opportunity. Thousands of dollars were provided for white farmers to build and grow, and if they received any money at all, hundreds were thrown their way.

This generation of Americans, when confronted with the past sins of racism, often remark that slavery and Jim Crow was so long ago. But we are talking about men and women who have fought a racist system in the last 20 to 30 years. They are the victims of racism, so why should Congress continue to deprive them by not setting the money aside?

Again, had the USDA not systematically denied them the opportunities afforded to white farmers, had they treated all farmers the same way, this generation of Americans wouldn't have to be paying for the sins of the past.

But we are. And instead of ignoring their plight, Congress should say, "Enough is enough. We did wrong by them years ago. And it's time that we make it right."

No one will ever know the pain and agony of trying to eke out a living as a farmer, only to witness the loss of the land your parents and grandparents fought to keep in the family. But this continuing mistreatment of black farmers is shameful.

Every American, no matter their skin color, should demand that Congress stop playing games. How do you pay for it? Killing a few of those precious earmarks is a good start.

No more press releases. No more meetings. No more talk. All these men and women want is fairness. They didn't get it years ago, and surely deserve it now.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Roland Martin.