Yesterday was Dr. Martin Luther King Day, and today I’d like to write about civil rights within a context that we don’t hear about very often: agriculture. One hundred years ago there were nearly 1 million Black farmers in the US, comprising over 10 percent of total farmers at the time. Today there are less than 50,000, comprising around 1.4 percent. There are many causes for this, and one of them has to do with the USDA’s long history of racial discrimination against Black farmers. This culminated in the largest class-action civil rights suit in US history: the Pigford Case, where the federal government in 1999 admitted to racial discrimination and settled over one billion dollars to Black farmers who were denied farm loans and assistance (unlike White farmers) due to the color of their skin.
While the history of Black farming is tragic and unjust, from slavery, to neo-slavery in the form of restrictive sharecropping during reconstruction, to the New Deal’s Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933 inadvertently driving Black farmers from the land, to the more modern-day, conscious discriminatory farm lending practices of the USDA, it is also rich and hugely influential: George Washington Carver developed and popularized crop rotation practices to prevent soil depletion; Booker T Whatley not only was one of the earliest developers in the United States of the CSA and pick-your-own models, but he also authored a book in 1987 entitled How To Make $100,000 Farming 25 Acres. This book directly inspired contemporary “Rockstar farmers” (as we call them) J. M. Fortier and Ben Hartman to write similar books, which in turn inspired an entire new generation of young farmers, including myself. Finally, the 1965 Voting Rights March from Selma to Montgomery would never have been possible were it not for Black farmers who owned farms along Highway 80 and who allowed marchers to sleep on their land, something that would never have been permitted by White farmers along the route. These same farmers also led fund raising efforts for racial justice for years leading up to Dr. King’s movement.
While my interest for this newsletter lies specifically with agriculture, I’d like to conclude by saying that racial discrimination pervades countless other segments of our lives, many of which remain hidden or not well known, similar to agriculture. Dr. Martin Luther King Day reminds us to unearth these injustices, to remember how members of marginalized groups have contributed immensely to the strength of our nation, and to use such knowledge to become better citizens.
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