Toting hand-lettered signs with slogans like "Save Our Land" and "Give Me Liberty, Not Racism," about 100 black farmers protested continued Clinton administration delay in resolving a backlog of discrimination complaints.
The farmers, accompanied by a mule named "Strug-gle" and three tractors, demonstrated this week outside the Agriculture Department and again at the Justice Department in an effort to keep the pressure on."We are American citizens, just as white citizens are," said Phillip Barker, who traveled from Oxford, N.C., to join the protest. "We deserve respect. When are we going to see some justice?"
The main target of their ire was the Justice Department. It concluded this month that a two-year statute of limitations bars most of the 2,000 or so complaining farmers from getting any cash compensation even if they suffered discrimination in denial of loans and other benefits.
Standing atop a flatbed truck on Independence Avenue, farmer Philip Haynie of Heathsville, Va., compared the battle with the difficult years his great-grandfather faced right after he was freed from slavery.
"We're not dumb. We're not lazy. We are just victims of the system," Haynie said. "It's time for them to let us out of the economic slavery they put us in."
But legislation waiving the statute of limitations for the farmers is needed before the Clinton administration can approve cash settlements the farmers need to plant crops and buy supplies. The White House and top Justice and Agriculture department officials are working with the Congressional Black Caucus to develop the measure.
"We know there are wrongs to be righted. I'm acknowledging that," Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman told the farmers during a brief meeting in his offices. "We understand the problems and the pain."
Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., the black caucus chairwoman, said, "We need an aggressive and bold way to settle these claims. We would hope it would not be a political issue."
Meanwhile, 350 farmers have filed a $2 billion lawsuit over the long delays in settling their cases. It could go to trial early next year.