DURHAM — While thousands of admirers of Martin Luther King Jr. sang their way down Chapel Hill Street in Durham today to honor King's legacy, more than 200 black farmers from across North Carolina waited quietly inside the Marriott Hotel downtown carrying papers, memoirs and stories of discrimination.
As part of a class-action lawsuit, called Pigford II, this group of farmers came to meet with lawyers who offered to help them file a claim for their final chance to receive compensation from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for race-based discrimination that, for some farmers, has gone unrecognized since 1981. The lawyers offered the help for free.
This really is the spirit of service that King talked about, said James Farrin, one of the lead attorneys whose Durham-based firm is spearheading the six-month-long nationwide project.
The first Pigford lawsuit was settled in 1999. It allotted monetary compensation to black farm owners who could prove that the USDA discriminated against them between 1981 and 1996 based on race.
But many people who may have been eligible to receive compensation did not file timely claims.
Alfonza Walker, 58, of Duplin County filed for his claim a week late in 1999. There was a hurricane in my county, he said. I could not get to the post office.
As a result, he was denied any compensation.
I applied for a loan in 1983, and they told me there were no funds available and there was no need to reapply, Walker said. While he watched his white neighbors get loans of up to $500,000 and expand their farms, he had to quit farming.
Farrin estimates that more than 4,000 farmers in North Carolina did not receive their compensation because of untimely claims.
Katina Hughes, 35, came today with her mother, who was a farmer.
I dont think what they get for a claim will suffice for everything they had to lose, but this is a small part of feeling justified, Hughes said.
She said as she waited with her mother for their turn to meet with an attorney, she couldnt help but think, Where would all these people be if they had been able to continue their lives, and keep their farms?
Though the event was not intentionally planned for the King holiday, the symbolism of the event was hard to ignore, Farrin said. In Kings 1963 I Have a Dream Speech, he said:
Go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed
On Tuesday, Farrin and logistics officer Eric Sanchez will carry the project to South Carolina.