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How Black Farmers Have Supported Voting Rights

Last week, 57 Texas legislators left the state and headed to Washington, D.C., to defend the freedom to vote. After Texas Governor Abbott called a special session to advance bills that will severely curtail voting access, the legislators left the state to prevent the legislature from reaching a  quorum, thereby prohibiting a vote on the measures. In Washington, they are meeting with Congressional representatives and members of the Biden administration to push for federal action to protect voting rights. The legislators are taking action despite personal risk, as Abbott has said that he will have them arrested upon their return to Texas.

Two of the brave representatives currently in the U.S. capital, Rep. Eddie Rodriguez and Rep. Nicole Collier, penned an op-ed on another important topic that was published this weekend in the Austin American-Statesman. Prompted by a legal battle over debt relief for Black farmers, the two legislators call attention to the long and ongoing injustice inherent in the U.S. agricultural system. Though at first glance, voting rights and farming may seem unrelated, the op-ed’s timing is appropriate; in fact, the two issues have a long and intertwined history going back at least to the Civil Rights era.

Black Farmer Debt Relief 

Rodriguez and Collier’s op-ed, Debt relief a first step towards fairness for all farmers, focuses on the $5 billion in debt relief and other aid for Black farmers and other farmers of color that was included in the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan passed in March. The relief package was intended to address debt carried by many Black farmers due to the long history of discriminatory practices by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) itself, which in many cases resulted in farmers losing their farms or land. One estimate suggests that the USDA’s discrimination against Black farmers is responsible for a loss of $300 billion in Black wealth, one of the many factors contributing to the massive and ongoing racial wealth gap.

White farmers in at least five states have filed lawsuits against the administration, claiming debt relief targeted to farmers of color discriminates against white farmers. Texas Commissioner of Agriculture Sid Miller filed one of these suits.

In their op-ed, Rodriguez and Collier spell out ways in which the U.S. farm system is indeed stacked against independent family farmers regardless of race and instead favors heavily capitalized large-scale operations—and point out that Black farmers face those obstacles on top of long-term and ongoing racial discrimination by the very agency charged with helping them. The debt relief, they argue, is a step towards a fairer farm system for all.

The Power of Black Land Ownership 

Land ownership provides economic power and autonomy. Following the Civil War and the end of legal slavery, Black land ownership was therefore seen as a threat to the white power structure—a view that persisted for over a century and continues in many places today. This meant that much of the direct discrimination Black farmers faced from the USDA in the early and mid-20th century happened at the local level. White USDA county officials denied or delayed loans and other support to local Black farmers so they would not succeed economically, as economic success could lead to political power. The efforts of these county officials and others to uphold white economic and political power were successful; the number of Black farmers in the U.S. fell by 98% through the 20th century, with land loss of nearly 90%.

The Black landowners who, despite these challenges, managed to remain in the South were integral to the 1964 Freedom Summer campaign in Mississippi. In violation of segregationist laws, Black landowners housed both Black and white volunteers who were risking their lives to register Black voters. Landowners used property bonds—collateral against their land—to post bail for arrested civil rights workers. According to one estimate, property bonds bailed out more than 25,000 people during the movement.

Farm Cooperatives

USDA discrimination against Black farmers and outright land theft were just a part of the Jim Crow South, where a wholesale system of racist laws and extralegal violence closed economic opportunities and intimidated Black Southerners into silence or into a Northern migration. Black-run farm cooperatives offered an alternative.

In her 2019 book Freedom Farmers: Agricultural Resistance and the Black Freedom Movement, scholar Monica White explores the long history of Black agricultural cooperatives, which, she writes, “were necessary for the survival of the movement to sustain activists, to provide them with a measure of independence so they could avoid joining the migration or being economically cowered to survive.”

Farmer and activist Fannie Lou Hamer started the Freedom Farm Cooperative in 1967 in her native Sunflower County, Mississippi, to develop a self-sustaining Black community on a foundation of agriculture. Growing produce and raising livestock on cooperatively-owned land gave cooperative members economic and food security that was otherwise nearly impossible in the impoverished county. The cooperative also provided housing, education, and employment, all run through collaborative decision-making. The economic autonomy made possible by these projects allowed collaborative members to engage politically as well.

“Land is the key. It’s tied to voter registration,” said Hamer in a 1971 interview quoted by White.

Wendell Paris, one of the founders of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, told White that he considered the agricultural cooperative movement “an outgrowth of the civil rights movement.” The Federation, founded in Alabama in 1967, today provides training, technical assistance, marketing opportunities, and community for thousands of Black farmers in seven southern states. Like Martin Luther King’s Poor People’s Campaign, the Federation addressed economic justice, wealth inequities, and lack of jobs and opportunities—recognizing that these fundamental needs “were intertwined with … rights to access public accommodations and the right to vote,” as White writes.

Just as they did in the 1960s, the attacks on voting rights and on Black farmer autonomy come from the same quarter today — from those who want to maintain the white power structure. We are proud to work with leaders like Representatives Rodriguez and Collier, who recognize the interconnection of justice issues and take a stand against injustice wherever they see it. For support in talking about Black farmer debt relief, check out our messaging guide, and to stand with the Texas lawmakers in support of expanded voting rights, click here.

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