Date: Wed, 13 Jan 1999 14:51:33 -0600 (CST)
From: email@example.com (Brian Hauk)
Subject: Mississippi: Black Farmers Fight For Change
Black Farmers Fight For Change: Eddie Carthan,
Former Mayor of Tchula, Describes Struggle In Mississippi Delta
By Susan Lamont and Ronald Martin,
in The Militant, Vol. 63, no. 2
18 January 1999
TCHULA, Mississippi - The northeastern part of this
state - some 7,000 square miles of flat, fertile farm land
formed by the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers' flood plain - is
known as the Delta.
The Delta's population is overwhelmingly Black. The area is
known for its poverty in the U.S. state that ranks last in per
capita personal income. And it is known for the degree to
which old attitudes and practices from the South's
segregationist past still have a hold. But it is also home to
fighting Black farmers and workers who are determined to see
some changes made, including farmers who are part of the
historic fight against the discriminatory practices of the U.S.
Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Eddie Carthan, 49, runs an old-fashioned hardware store in
this small Delta town. A longtime civil rights leader in the
area, he is also president of the Mississippi Family Farmers
and an activist in a class-action suit by Black farmers against
After his father's death in 1983, Carthan began farming his
family's land, raising cotton, soybeans, and wheat on 600 acres
near Tchula. He was pushed out of farming in 1997 by the cost-
price squeeze that all small farmers face, exacerbated by the
government's discriminatory lending policies toward farmers who
are Black. Now he rents out his land to other farmers.
"The Mississippi Family Farmers, which is a statewide
organization formed in 1985, predates the current USDA suit,"
Carthan explained in a recent interview with these Militant
correspondents held in his busy hardware store. "So many Black
farmers had problems with government and local lending
institutions. The white plantation owners, banks, and FmHA
[Farmers Home Administration] were trying to get rid of Black
farmers, so we came together to save Black farmers and to
encourage young people and women to get into the business." The
FmHA, now part of the USDA's Farm Service Agency, was set up in
the 1930s under mass pressure, to provide loans to working
farmers on better terms than the commercial banks.
"In the 1980s and early '90s, we held meetings and forums
and workshops, trying to help farmers get the help they needed
from the government. When no help was forthcoming, we tried to
file an antidiscrimination suit ourselves in the early '90s
against the USDA. But we had trouble getting lawyers and the
money to file," Carthan noted. Finally, they decided to join
with other Black farmers from Alabama, North Carolina, Georgia,
and other states in the current lawsuit, which includes some
125 farmers from Mississippi.
Farmers discuss proposed settlement
Black farmers here are discussing the recent settlement
proposal from the U.S. Department of Justice, which represents
the USDA in the federal court suit. In late November, hundreds
of Black farmers attended three meetings in Selma, Alabama;
Pine Bluff, Arkansas; and Durham, North Carolina, to hear the
Justice Department's proposed settlement of their $2.5 billion
class-action antidiscrimination suit, filed in 1997. Under
terms of the proposal, farmers would be divided into two
classes. Class A, which would include between 2,000 and 4,000
farmers, would be required to provide relatively little
documentation to prove discrimination. They would receive
$50,000 each, and their loan debts to the government would be
written off. They would also get tax relief on the $50,000 and
the debt relief.
Other farmers - a much smaller number, according to the
farmers' lawyers - would be in class B. If they have extensive
documentation, they could ask for an arbitration hearing, where
they could get a much larger settlement - or a much smaller
one, or none at all. A farmer who was not awarded just
compensation by such a hearing would not be able to appeal the
"This settlement will solve some problems," Carthan said,
"but it's not near justice or fair, nowhere close."
Some Black farmers in Mississippi are living on land that
has been in their family for generations, since after the Civil
War. "A lot of Black farmers have lost their land through
trickery and thievery," Carthan said. "Those who remain have
caught hell, trying to survive. Now the government has admitted
it has discriminated against Blacks, but they're refusing to
adequately pay for their illegal, discriminatory practices."
The proposed settlement does not include punitive damages for
pain and suffering over the years, repayment for loss of
property, and other losses suffered by Black farmers, he noted.
Part of the proposed settlement would include a federally
appointed monitor to make sure discriminatory practices didn't
continue at the USDA. Carthan expressed concern that the
lawsuit settlement doesn't adequately address the structural
problems with the USDA that would remain if the case is
settled, to really end the discriminatory practices.
"Every county has a supervisor hired by the federal
government, who then sets up a local board to oversee farm
loans and other farm programs," Carthan explained. "Some of
these boards are elected, others appointed." The virtually all-
white boards in Mississippi and elsewhere in the South are the
ones who have been denying or delaying loans and refusing to
treat Black farmers' complaints seriously for decades. "It
would be hard for a Black to even be allowed to serve on one,"
`A very corrupt system'
After Carthan started farming in 1983, it took him three
years to get a government loan, after being turned down several
times each year he tried. Carthan lost some of his farm
equipment during that time, along with $40,000 he had raised as
"It is a very corrupt system," Carthan said. "You go through
all this trouble, and if you do finally get a loan, it's too
late. After all, farming is a timing operation.
"If you did get to plant [cotton], come harvest time, the
cotton gin in this area are all owned by white cooperatives,
and they wouldn't gin our cotton," he added. "So we had to take
it 30 or 40 miles away, where they charged more. The gins make
money from the oil and seed they remove from the cotton, but
still they would charge the Black farmers." The system is
rigged in other ways, he noted. Any USDA program to supplement
farmers' income is based on yield, which the gin certifies to
the government. White farmers are always certified with high
yields, the Black farmers with low ones. "The same official who
works for the local USDA board has a relative who works in the
local bank," Carthan described. "These are the same people who
are trying to get your land, through delaying your loans,
selling you bad seed, and in other ways." Carthan's father was
sold bad cotton seed one year, but the crop year was over by
the time he discovered it. "They try to break your spirit by
going after you in all kinds of ways," Carthan said. He
recalled one county USDA supervisor who essentially stole money
from Black farmers, taking advantage of the fact that some of
them could not read. After it was discovered, "He was not
fired," Carthan said, "just moved to another office."
In the Delta, much of the land is owned by white plantation
owners. "These are white farmers who own large tracts of land,
with laborers living and working on his land. He owns the land
and the houses. It's like agribusiness. There aren't many small
farmers who are white," he said. To get around government
ceilings on subsidies a farmer can get, some of these
plantation owners divide up their land, putting sections of it
in their workers' names - and then collect the additional
Tchula's first Black mayor
Carthan brings several decades of hard-fought experience to
bear in the Black farmers' current struggle. In 1977, Carthan
was elected mayor of Tchula, the first Black ever to be elected
mayor of a biracial town in the Delta. He was forced out of
office in 1981, just one month shy of completing his first
term, after being convicted on trumped-up charges of assaulting
a police officer. He was given a three-year prison sentence.
After seven months, the governor suspended the rest of his
When Carthan took office, he recalled, Tchula was still
segregated, with whites living on one side of the railroad
tracks, and Blacks - who were 85 percent of the population -on
the other. In the Black community, roads were unpaved, there
were no sidewalks or streetlights, 80 percent of the houses had
no indoor plumbing, other social services were poor or missing
entirely. There were no Blacks heading up any city department,
and many Blacks "did not know where the City Hall was," Carthan
Carthan sought to bring in improved housing, medical care,
as well as water and sewage programs to the Black community. In
an effort to punish him and put the Black community back in its
place, the local white business and landowning establishment
began "investigating" him from the moment he took office. "It
was a legal lynching and a political lynching," Carthan said.
Before he was even released from prison on the assault
charges, Carthan was again framed up -- this time on charges
that he had murdered a city alderman a year earlier, in 1980.
He was finally acquitted of the murder charge, after his case
became known nationally and internationally, including through
the pages of the Militant, which campaigned for his release.
While in jail facing the murder charges, he was framed up
again, this time on charges of giving false information to a
local bank. Sentenced in 1982 to three years in federal prison,
he was released by judge's order after eight months.
A victim of frame-up himself, Carthan has lent his support
to other fighters under attack. He was a prominent supporter of
Mark Curtis, the union activist and Socialist Workers Party
member from Des Moines, Iowa, who was framed up on rape and
burglary charges and imprisoned from 1988 to 1996. Carthan lent
his support to the international defense campaign that finally
won Curtis' release.
Susan LaMont is a member of United Steelworkers of America
Local 2122 in Fairfield, Alabama. Ronald Martin is a member of
the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers Local 108 in
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