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Civil rights lawyer Crump sues US over repealed aid to Black farmers

Plaintiffs ‘risk losing their farms’ because debt relief wasn’t provided

John Boyd Jr., president of the National Black Farmers Association, was one of four plaintiffs in the suit filed by civil rights lawyer Ben Crump.
John Boyd Jr., president of the National Black Farmers Association, was one of four plaintiffs in the suit filed by civil rights lawyer Ben Crump. (Scott J. Ferrell/CQ file photo)

Civil rights attorney Ben Crump and four minority farmers say Congress broke a contract when lawmakers repealed $4 billion in debt relief for minority producers and adopted new language that expanded eligibility to a broader group of economically distressed growers.

Lawmakers made the change in an August reconciliation law to move past three nationwide court injunctions that had kept the money in limbo.  

Crump, nationally known for his work in responding to the police killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Ky., filed a lawsuit against the federal government in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims. The lawsuit, dated Oct. 7, says the four plaintiffs “risk losing their farms and their livelihoods as a result of the U.S. Government’s wrongful conduct.”

At a small rally on the National Mall, Crump said his clients considered letters from the Agriculture Department’s Farm Service Agency telling them the amount of debt they could expect to be covered to be binding contracts once they agreed to the amount. The debt was covered by a March 2021 budget reconciliation package.

Crump said his clients — Lester Bonner; Princess Williams; Kara Boyd, the founder of the Association of American Indian Farmers; and John Boyd Jr., the president of the National Black Farmers Association — borrowed more money for farm operations or bought land and equipment because of those letters. They and other minority farmers are struggling to pay outstanding loans and may face foreclosure, he said. 

“They relied on the promises of the government. We are here to say, America, we are not going to allow you to continue to break your promises to Black people and brown people and Native Americans and Asian people,” Crump said.

Williams, a Navy veteran with 73 acres in Virginia, began farming with her children in 2020 and said debt forgiveness “would have been very helpful to us. We did not receive that money, and now it’s putting us in a total financial bind. It was a slap in the face to see it repealed after it was promised to us.”

Crump and John Boyd Jr. likened the congressional repeal of debt forgiveness and discrimination payments for Black and minority farmers to the federal government’s failure to keep a Civil War-era promise to redistribute 400,000 acres of confiscated land to formerly enslaved people or to provide mules for farming. 

Boyd brought his mule, Jesus, to the news conference to underscore the connection between the 1865 pledge and the 2021 law. He said the U.S. government appeared more willing to aid Ukrainian farmers than U.S. farmers of color.

“This is a broken promise to Black America and other farmers of color,” Boyd said.

Congress initially appropriated $4 billion to pay outstanding balances of Farm Service Agency loans made directly to socially disadvantaged farmers or private loans that the agency guaranteed. The funding was to cover both a farmer’s eligible debt and the tax obligations that would be triggered by the debt forgiveness. The law would have applied to outstanding balances as of Jan. 1, 2021.

Supporters of the 2021 provision called it a first step toward addressing discrimination in lending and Agriculture Department programs that favor larger farm operations.

But white farmers put Agriculture Department action on the debt forgiveness on hold with lawsuits challenging the use of a 1990 farm bill definition in determining who could qualify for debt forgiveness.

The 1990 law defined socially disadvantaged agricultural producers as those “subjected to racial or ethnic prejudices because of their identity as a member of a group without regard to their individual qualities.” Producers who were African American, Native American or Alaska Native, Hispanic, and Asian or Pacific Islander are covered.

Lawsuits also targeted another section of the law, which provided $1 billion over several years to Black land-grant universities and nonprofit institutions to expand the network of organizations providing technical assistance and financing for Black and minority agricultural producers and forest owners. The Agriculture Department also had leeway to provide aid to farmers of color who experienced bias or discrimination on farm loans they held in the past. 

Marissa Perry, an Agriculture Department spokeswoman, said the department strongly supported the 2021 provisions.

“However, the $5 billion that was intended to help farmers was frozen by three nationwide injunctions that prevented USDA from getting payments out the door. The government vigorously defended this program in the courts but because of these injunctions, the $5 billion provided in ARPA remained frozen. This litigation would likely have not been resolved for years,” Perry said in a statement. 

In August, Congress repealed the $4 billion provision and replaced it with $3.1 billion of debt relief for loan payments and loan modifications for producers struggling with direct Farm Service Agency loans or private loans the agency guaranteed.

The new law also changed the $1 billion provision to provide $2.2 billion in financial assistance to farmers, ranchers or forest owners found to have been discriminated against in Agriculture Department loan programs before Jan. 1, 2021.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has said the department will have to define “distressed” since the law doesn’t and define discrimination to establish a process to use the $2.2 billion.