The Last Plantation
Food First Backgrounder, Winter 2000, Vol. 6, No. 1
“No justice, no peace! No farms, no food!” shouted hundreds of black farmers and their supporters as they walked past the cheering crowds lining the streets of downtown Atlanta for the annual Martin Luther King March on January 17, 2000. They also carried posters of guns. “A white USDA employee was found guilty of carrying a loaded gun to his office,” one of the demonstrators explained, “which he used to intimidate a black farmer asking about his USDA loan application in 1998. His punishment was one day’s suspension with pay. So since they can bring guns to work, we thought we’d bring posters of guns to a peace rally.” Police estimated that over 15,000 people followed the marchers to the Martin Luther King memorial for a rally later that afternoon. Gary Grant, president of the Black Farmers and Agriculturists Association (BFAA), said at the rally, “Landless people are but refugees in a strange land.” He was referring to the plight of black farmers in the United States.
Land is the basis of all independence. Land is the basis of freedom, justice and equality. – Malcolm X
In November 1992, Melvin Bishop’s farm in Eatonton, Georgia, suffered severe damage from a tornado. Other farm businesses in the area also suffered in the aftermath of the tornado with losses of crops, livestock, supplies, equipment, barns and storage areas. These losses resulted in reduced family income, delayed production, stunted business growth, and for some, a total loss of their livelihood. After the storm, Melvin Bishop, president of the Georgia BFAA, went to the USDA to fill out applications for disaster relief, an emergency loan, and an operating loan. For the next seven months, the official at the USDA office gave him the runaround by inventing irrelevant reasons to put him off. Finally, in May of 1993 he was denied not only disaster relief, which he qualified for, he was also denied emergency and operating loans. No reasons were given.
When testifying at the Eatonton stop of the Economic Human Rights Bus Tour along with several other black farmers, Melvin Bishop said, “Even more devastating than the tornado was being denied USDA funds appropriated for emergency disaster and relief purposes. The process involved in waiting and standing in long lines to shuffle paper, completing forms and applications, was physically, mentally and emotionally draining.”
His situation is not unique. Melvin Bishop is among hundreds of black farmers who have filed administrative complaints or lawsuits charging that for decades USDA loan officials have discouraged, delayed, or rejected loan applications because of their race. These charges have been upheld by federal officials. The farmers say that such discrimination is one reason that the nation’s already tiny corps of black farmers is dwindling at three times the rate of farmers nationwide.