Wichita The nation's black farmers filed a $20.5 billion lawsuit Thursday against the Agriculture Department, alleging the agency conspired to take their land through racial discrimination in government farm loans and programs.
"The last thing in the world the African-American should be denied is the right to farm -- that is the reason we were brought here. ... Farming should be an entitlement to black folk. Our great-grandfathers and great-grandmothers paid for that opportunity," said Thomas Burrell, president of the Black Farmers and Agriculturalist Assn.
The lawsuit, filed by the association and 11 other plaintiffs, seeks class action status. If granted, the case could include as many as 25,000 black farmers who farmed or attempted to farm between 1997 and 2004, according to the lawsuit.
Civil rights attorney James Myart, who filed the lawsuit, said the number of claimants was likely to top 70,000.
The Agriculture Department said it could not comment on pending litigation. However, USDA spokesman Ed Loyd said the agency's record on civil rights laws during the Bush Administration had been exemplary.
Myart called it a "watershed lawsuit" -- the nation's largest civil rights case since the Pigford vs. Glickman lawsuit was filed in 1997.
Burrell said the USDA purposefully made insufficient and late operating loans to black farmers in order to later foreclose on their land.
The new lawsuit accuses the agency of retaliating against black farmers who collected payments under the Pigford settlement. It cited the case of plaintiff Charlie Scott, a Tennessee farmer who collected $50,000 in 2000 under the Pigford settlement but has been denied credit by the agency since then.
It also accuses the agency of intentionally stalling and reducing loans to black farmers.