By James Clingman
Black Farmers Still Fighting
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"Get land and lie on it." Those were the words of Booker T. Washington as he admonished his people toward ownership of the most valuable commodity in the world. Brother Washington went on to tell his people, "You go to town with your pockets full and your wagons empty and return with your wagons full and your pockets empty. You must go to town with your wagons full of your produce and your pockets empty and return with your pockets full and your wagons empty."
This was one of the most basic principles anyone could promulgate. It made sense then and it makes sense now. As we see Black farmers still struggling to retain a modicum of what once was theirs, and as we witness them in their fight to maintain some level of economic dignity, Booker T's words ring clear. Black farmers heeded those words, despite having their land stolen from them, being denied loans from the government, and being patted on their heads with a ridiculous monetary offer to kiss and make up with the United States Department of Agriculture. Black farmers took the risks and stayed the course. Now, what are we going to do to assist them in their fight for economic justice?
According to leading expert, Dr. Robert D. Bullard, in 1910 Black farmers owned over 16 million acres of farmland. Ten years later some 925,000 Black farmers tilled the soil and fed our people - and other people as well. Now we have fewer than 17,000 Black farmers who own less than 3 million acres of land.
In case you did not hear about the proposed settlement offered to Black farmers back in March 1999, it was an insult to them. The farmers are still fighting for an equitable end to a long and hard fought battle with the USDA that saw years of blatant discrimination against Black farmers and their families.
The sad footnote in this case is the specter of billions per being spent on food by Black people in this country every year. Add that to the mere 19 Black owned supermarkets in this country and you will see a picture of irresponsibility, complacency, and downright dependency by Black people on the very basics needed to sustain life.
This scenario also presents an opportunity, as most problems do. As we always say in this column, if we would pool our resources and establish more supermarkets - and support them, of course - we could take a huge chunk out of our problem. Additionally, if we would develop vertical businesses in the food industry, similar to what Dr. Claud Anderson has been telling us for years, we could create more jobs for our people and we could support our farmers by buying their products. Now that's as simple as it gets folks. We're talking about food, something each of us must have. Of course, this will also work with other items like fish and chicken. Anything we eat, we should be able to provide it to ourselves. It's pretty scary to think that someone else controls our food supply. It's also pretty sad that we could not, if pressed to do so, feed our own children.
Well, that's why the Black farmers are so vital to Black people in general. They are the ones who own most of the land, and since no one is making more of that valuable commodity we must see that they are able to hold on to what they have - and get more if they can.
Some may say farming is passe and no one wants to do it any more. Well, until eating becomes passe and goes out of style we had better have a few Black farmers to rely upon to grow our food.
We should take a lesson from the REACH Program in Meridian, Mississippi, which, since 1977, has been practicing what many of us only preach about. Members of the Christ Temple Church, under the leadership of Bishop Luke Edwards, pooled their food stamps, bought peanuts and sold them on the streets. In 1999, REACH owns 4,000 acres of land, a hog farm, 1000 head of cattle, an auto repair business, a construction company, three motels, four restaurants, a K-12 school with dormitories, and (wouldn't you know it?) a supermarket. REACH is taking care of business, and one of the main ingredients in its success is land ownership.
In an exclusive interview of a Black farmer conducted by Dr. Bullard for the Environmental Justice Resource Center, Mr. Gary Grant of Tillery, North Carolina had this to say when asked how we can help. "I would like to ask Black institutions and Black people to believe that Black farmers know what is needed. Second, I would also like them to contribute financially, morally, physically, and spiritually. Third, we need to begin a massive education program with our children on the importance of owning land."
Mr. Grant also seemed to echo old Booker T. when he said, "Land ownership is economic power, political power, and is the only avenue that we really have to ensure our children a legacy." Now, if you don't believe Gary Grant, dig out those old records and listen to James Brown when he says, "Let's get together and get some land; raise our food like the man."