“Mr. John Moses Bonner, 87, of 16119 Courthouse Road, Dinwiddie, Va., entered eternal rest on Sunday, April 11, 2010, at Southside Regional Center," reads an April 14 obituary in the Progress-Index in Dinwiddie, Va. "Mr. Bonner was a member of Mount Level Baptist Church, where he served as the chairman of the trustee ministry and was a member of the adult Sunday School Class until his health began to decline.
"He retired from Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp. However, farming was his life-long passion. He served on the Farm Service Committee for 18 years. He was also one of the original pioneers of the Black Farmers' Movement."
For people outside of tiny Dinwiddie, the life and death of Bonner mean nothing. He was just a simple old black farmer.
But to John Wesley Boyd Jr., president of the National Black Farmers Association, the life and death of Bonner epitomize the enduring legacy of racial injustice in the United States. Boyd, who owns a 300-acre poultry farm in Baskerville, not far from Dinwiddie, knew Bonner as a child. He saw Bonner and other black farmers in Virginia fail to get the same loans from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that white farmers got with ease.
During the early 1980s, Boyd watched as men such as Bonner began a movement to persuade the USDA to treat them the way white farmers were treated. Nothing happened. Then, in 1997, Timothy Pigford, a North Carolina black farmer, filed a lawsuit against the USDA alleging that between 1983 and 1997, the agency treated black farmers unfairly in decisions to allocate price support loans, disaster payments, operating loans and farm ownership loans. Then-Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman was the defendant.
In 1999, Pigford and about 2,000 other farmers in the class action settled for $50,000 apiece to avoid prolonged litigation. Thousands of other black farmers were unaware of the Pigford vs. Glickman class-action lawsuit and missed the deadline for filing. The USDA disqualified thousands of others. Boyd led an effort, known as the Black Farmers Late Claim Bill, to ensure that some 80,000 black farmers would receive compensation.
As a candidate for president, Sen. Barack Obama co-sponsored a bill allowing black farmers to seek new discrimination claims against the USDA. But as president, Obama has softened his support and backed away from the decades-old cause.
In January, the administration announced a $1.2 billion agreement to settle the claims against the USDA, one of the biggest civil rights settlements ever. Congress was given a March 31 deadline to approve the funds. Lawmakers conveniently left Washington on March 23 for a two-week break, thereby missing the deadline for approving the funds.
Boyd tried to get the administration to declare the settlement an emergency, but that move failed. It would have freed Congress from the so-called "pay-go" requirement to reduce budgets for other programs that fund the payments. Obama refused to give the settlement emergency designation, a move that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi support.
Boyd's most recent trip to Washington went nowhere. As one who considers Obama to be a friend after their relationship during the presidential campaign, Boyd reluctantly blames the president for stalling the funding.
"I'm not going to tell you that I like the president because I love the president, the first African-American president in history," Boyd said during a telephone interview from Washington. "The president had a chance to finish the job for black farmers, but he is caught up in the race thing. The administration wants to stay away from race and show the president as a world leader. I do, too. But this is one of those issues about right and wrong, and it goes back to slavery in this country. Obama shouldn't shy away from it. It's black history. He should've known Mr. Bonner.
"When we had our White House meeting, they said they couldn't push this as an emergency with the president's approval. Well, when you're dying and you don't have operating money and going out of business, that is an emergency. That pattern is all over the country for black farmers. I'm not a minister, but I've delivered the eulogies of several black farmers over the past year. I delivered Mr. Bonner's eulogy. He died looking for the settlement. At this rate, his two sons, who are farmers, will die looking for justice. That is unfair."
Boyd and other organizers said they will have to restart their "street movement" to get the administration's attention. "The president may not want to address race with the black farmers publicly with the energy that he advocated for the health care legislation," Boyd said. "But he needs to advocate for us and finish the job. The old black farmers, like John Moses Bonner, are dying off. How many more eulogies will I deliver before we see some justice?"