The event had been scheduled for quite some time. It was designed to serve as the anniversary of the Fairness Hearing before Judge Friedman on March 2, 1999. We believed then as we strongly believe now that the Pigford v. Glickman Consent Decree was a gross miscarriage of justice. White America thinks Black farmers made off like bandits in Pigford I and Pigford II, but those walking closely with Black farmers know the truth, and that brutal truth is that most Black farmers are worse off now than they were before Pigford I.
So, my wife, Charla, and I organized our schedules, worked on our flights, and made our way to Washington, DC. Flying into Reagan International was stirring as we flew over and saw the most prominent of the buildings of the US government, knowing that we were there to protest in front of the White House.
Charla oftentimes attends these sorts of things with me. Not only is she my Beloved, she is our partner in fighting for justice. We live in a red state and go to a red church, and she has red friends, so she knows well these complicated matters.
We gathered with old friends and new friends in the lobby of the Cambria Hotel Riverfront DC. It was a sight to behold, folks we had not seen since 2005 or 2008 or 2019. It was an inspired and inspiring gathering.
Some 75 or so of us gathered for dinner later that night. We heard from key leaders, Lawrence Lucas, Tracy Lloyd McCurty, and Lloyd Wright, members of The Justice for Black Farmers Group. We got our marching orders. We heard a short speech from Danny Davis, D(VA), a man who knows well the plight of the Black farmer.
For those who follow this blog, I have mentioned before these three soldiers in the war against discrimination: Lawrence Lucas, Representative, Justice for Black Farmers Group, and President Emeritus, USDA Coalition of Minority Employees; Tracy LLoyd McCurty, J.D., Director of the Black Belt Justice Center; and Lloyd Wright, Black farmer and former Director, Office of Civil Rights, USDA.
We knew that Wednesday would be a long, tiring day, so we dispersed after dinner.
We met up early the next morning over breakfast and then shortly thereafter to get our assigned protest signs. Again, it was an energetic crowd as we moved about, chatted with folks, and talked about the day.
We arrived in front of the White House at about 11:30 and assembled on the sidewalk with our banner and our signs and the Demonstration was underway. "We Gave You the White House. You Gave Us Tom Vilsack," "No Check No Vote," "USDA The Last Plantation," and others. We chanted as we moved behind the large banner. We had only one-half hour to create a ruckus, and that we did. Many passers by stopped and watched and some even asked questions.
We could not stop. We were not to use megaphones, which we did, which was against policies. At one point an angry female police officer got in my face saying, "Sir, if you don't keep moving, we may arrest you." I simply stepped down onto Pennsylvania Avenue, and then the woman demanded documents from Tracy and thankfully Lloyd had brought copies. That was an intense moment. Senior citizens had to stop and rest, and they did so with their signs next to the fence with the White House in the background. We observed what must have been Secret Service Agents on the roof top, dressed in black with guns and cameras. We wondered if they could hear us. They could certainly see us. That's what we wanted, for the White House and the US Department of Agriculture to know that we were there. We had caught wind that the USDA told two HBCUs not to attend the demonstration.
Then at noon, we stepped off the side walks and onto Pennsylvania Avenue, with documents in hand from the US Park Service, and began our public relations event. We encircled the speakers, the microphone, and the amplifier. We listened as speakers stayed on task, "Tom Vilsack must go!" For over an hour, farmers and advocates spoke both to and in front of the White House. Some of us referenced the USDA, its malfeasance, and the White House, and President Biden's blindness to what Secretary Vilsack was doing. Secret Service folks circled around us. One employee of the USDA stood over and watched us from the vantage point of the trees of Lafayette Park. We were adjacent to the church where former President Trump stood, surrounded by staffers and police, holding the Bible upside down.
Our mantra was clear: "Vilsack must go!" "No check, no vote!" Black farmers, families, and advocates are tired of being sick and tired and waiting for the USDA and the White House to do right, to rectify decades of gross and calculated discrimination.
At one point, as a group of kids high fived the Secret Service agent, I stepped to him and quipped, "I guess it's ok to talk to you," and he laughed and we chatted for a good five minutes about who we were, where we were from, and why we were there. His face and voice softened and he listened respectfully, and at that moment one of his co-workers, a young, Black woman walked up to us. I shook both of their hands and walked back to the group.
Shortly thereafter, Lawrence Lucas, the gentleman in charge of keeping things going, motioned from beneath his mask with his right index finger. That signal was for me to get prepared to speak. I was not on the speaker list. I suspected that he might ask me to speak up, and so I did. I spoke a few words of appreciation about being with them. I spoke about Gary Grant, BFAA President, and I spoke about the occupant of the White House, and how White America does not know about Black farmers and their struggles, and I voiced my commitment to telling white people every chance I could get about stories of Black farmers. The applause and shouts said that they got it. Charla actually recorded it for me to hear later. I'm thankful that I didn't come off like some misguided, ineloquent fool.
At about 1:15, we divided into two buses, those going back to the hotel, and those delegates who were going to the Hart Senate Building to meet with the senators. As we drove there, it was inspiring to visit with Earl Ijames, curator for the North Carolina History Museum, and his efforts to keep stories alive, working his farm with plants and crops that had actually originated in Africa and brought here by the enslaved.
We arrived at the Hart Senate Building, made it through check in procedures which were much like the airports, and moved up to the fifth floor to meet in the conference room with staffers and eventually Senators Warren and Booker. I was pleased to finally be able to meet Senator Booker's staffer, Adam Zipkin, a gentleman who had worked for him for 25 years, way back when he was mayor of Newark. We embraced and shared words of mutual encouragement. We had met up many times via Zoom meetings, but face to face was inspirational.
I moved to the back of the conference room and stood along the wall. Seating for us was at a premium. We had planned for 18, but some 35 showed up, and we were not going to tell the farmers that they could not come.
Dr. Dwayne Goldmon, equity advisor for Secretary Vilsack, had somehow gotten invited to the meeting. We were mad. As we began our meeting, he attempted to take center stage and would have said and done more if our leaders had not challenged him to cease and desist, my words not theirs. It got hot in the room. Tension was at a feverish pitch and rightfully so. An interloper had arrived whom we had not invited.
Then at about 4:00 pm, Senator Warren came in. She brought with her a spirit of calm, one of gracious respect and concern, and for about 30 minutes she listened intently to our concerns. We felt her compassion. We thanked her for her work in developing her policy about Black farmers. At one point, I commented something like: "Senator Warren, thank you for allowing us the privilege of working with your policy team on your policy for Black farmers (She commented, "They are here."). It is obvious that you are meeting today with the survivors. We have many who are not here who died prematurely in the fight for justice. While it is important to talk about these matters, it is also important to know that decades of relentless discrimination wears people out, and they die prematurely." It felt to me like she was listening as I spoke that which was both on my heart and in my head, so to speak.
After she left the USDA Equity Advisor took center stage again. Again, he was challenged.
Around 4:45ish, Senator Booker came in, a big, imposing, kind, and generous spirited man. He spoke a few words, listened to things, and then assigned his staffer, Adam, to secure information from USDA that they were stone-walling us from receiving, payments by race, and not by state that had been released earlier and published by NPR.
After he departed to go vote, we continued for a bit, the shouting match continued and then Lloyd Wright pulled the meeting to a close when he, as I recall, pulled down his mask and said, "And I have a few things I want to say in closing." He went on and called for Vilsack's resignation. He had worked for Vilsack and knows that he will say one thing and do another.
From there we departed, said a few goodbyes, and went to hail our taxi back to the hotel. I shared a ride with Lawrence. We talked about the meeting and how Goldmon got it. A curious point was that Lawrence recognized that our taxi driver was from Ethiopia, a country he had lived in for five years decades ago. They talked in the language of Ethiopia. I was clueless as to what they were saying, but I enjoyed the generosity of spirit between my friend and the taxi driver.
I was just a little disappointed that Charla had not been able to attend the meeting in the Senator's office.
We chatted in the hotel lobby, disbanded for the evening, and then shortly thereafter I met in the restaurant with Charla and our good friends, Robbie and Heather, who wanted to know about how things went. With Charla and Robbie (before Heather arrived), I shared "content and process," family systems language they understood. We both laughed and groaned.
Shortly thereafter, Alfred Gross sat the table with us, and we wrapped up the day by swapping stories of hunting, field dressing deer, family shennanagins, skunks, and other uproariously funny stories.
The following morning, we met for breakfast and conversation and then headed out to the Museum of African American History and Culture. We had a limited amount of time and wound up on the top floor enjoying the history of Black singers and performers.
Then, as we left the hotel, Rod Bradshaw, farmer from Kansas, rode with us to Reagan, talking serious matters along the way, including his conversation with Goldmon both the previous day and on this particular day about the heinous practice of the federal government doing "administrative offsets," or taking percentages of Black farmers' income from them monthly. We understood that Goldmon said that this practice is illegal. We shall see.
From there, Charla and I arrived at Reagan, settled in to wait for our flight and for the hours that would pass before we could arrive home. We did arrive despite 80 mile per hour winds, overturned tractor trailer rigs, and a delayed landing because of the bad weather.
We knew that we had much to ponder and much to discuss.
Here are some photos from the day.
Charla Hinson, advocate for Black farmers, wore what I think is the most provocative sign, "WE GAVE YOU THE WHITE HOUSE. YOU GAVE US TOM VILSACK."
We marched up and down the side walk for 1/2 hour, chanting as we went.
Farmers and advocates "wearing" the signs with our distinct messages.
Senator Elizabeth Warren listens to the farmers and advocates.
Senator Booker speaks to the group of Black farmers and advocates.
Lloyd Wright, former Director, Office of Civil Rights, offers his parting shots while Eddie Slaughter waves his hand, and Edith Gross, Michael Stovall, Tracy Lloyd McCurty, and others look on.
Below, a Black farmer voices his opinion by the sign he wears.
Lawrence Lucas, Michael Stovall, and Waymon Hinson at the hotel.
Weary feet and bodies, but the signs speak the truth.