As We Have Sown: At current rates, blacks will own no land by the end of this century
By Edward Pennick
Vol. 9, No. 5, 1987, 5-7
For black Americans the rural crisis is not limited to any region, profession or economic class. It touches us all though probably nowhere is the farm crisis more acute than in the rural South.
The decline in black land ownership over the past twenty years is alarming and unabated. The problem is so severe that a different approach is now needed, one that appeals to survival instincts of both white as well as black individuals.
Like their counterparts in the Midwest and other parts of the country white farmers are facing a serious economic problem. Many will not survive. That will have adverse effects on entire rural Southern communities and economies. Unlike their Midwestern counterparts most Southern white farmers are reluctant and even refuse to organize against those institutions and politicians responsible for putting them in this crisis situation.
White farmers for the most part are hesitant when it comes to joining with other groups whom they consider outsiders or anti-establishment although we at the Federation of Southern Cooperatives have noticed a significant increase in the numbers of white farmers seeking assistance from us. Still, white farmers’ need for assistance and our positive response does not translate in most cases into those white farmers’ willingness to join forces with us to deal with the common problem-the unfair agricultural system in this country. So the small white farmers for the most part continue to suffer mostly alone while still believing that the present system will rescue them. They refuse to believe that the key to their survival may mean joining forces with black farmers and landowners. Unfortunately
these beliefs are encouraged by many of our private, public and religious institutions that are either too scared to rock the boat or they recognize the almost unlimited potential of a black and white Southern rural movement, a movement that would totally destroy the age-old Southern strategy of divide-and-conquer.
The Southern rural crisis is unique and complex. Yet for Southern white farmers there is a glimmer of hope because whether they organize or not they will benefit from a successful conclusion to the current crisis. I believe that in the end the family farmer will prevail. This does not, however, mean that the black family farmer will prevail. Theirs is a different plight that requires constant struggle. When there was no rural crisis black farmers were out of sight and out of mind. Only recently has their situation been viewed by some as worthy of inclusion in the future of American agriculture.
More than 90 percent of black-owned land is located in the South. The problem is that blacks average nearly 30 percent of the Southern farm population while they receive only a small fraction of the state and federal government agricultural services.
In fact, less than 25 percent of all black farmers have received assistance from the Farmers Home Administration. Given the current problems we are having with the FmHA some might consider that a blessing. Still, the point is that blacks as a whole have been denied equal opportunity to participate in programs mandated by Congress as a resource to farmers. This is true even though statistics show that blacks are more dependent on their farm operations for survival than are their white counterparts. In Mississippi, for example, 43 percent of all farmers are black yet they receive only 7.7 percent of FmHA loans. The same pattern exists in other Southern states. Not only do they not receive timely and adequate financial assistance, black farmers also under-utilize other government-sponsored agricultural programs. Their lack of knowledge of the number and range of available rural development programs causes them to miss many needed and beneficial services. When blacks do attempt to utilize these programs their efforts are often hindered by under-staffed, poorly qualified, even prejudiced personnel within the various county agricultural offices. The bottom line is that even with the often heroic efforts of FSC and other concerned organizations and individuals, blacks are still losing land at a rate of a half million acres annually, over twice as fast as white land owners and farmers.
Depending on whose statistics you believe, blacks own between three and one-half million and six million acres of land. No matter which numbers you use, at the current rate of decline blacks will own no land by the end of this century.
LET YOUR IMAGINATION take you to the year 1998. It is an election year and the major black political, social and religious leaders have called a national press conference in Atlanta to bring to the public’s attention the fact that black Americans who once owned nearly fifteen million acres of land are now a landless people. They are forming a select committee to determine what led to this tragedy and to develop strategies to force the candidates to make black land acquisition a part of their overall platforms. Meanwhile, rural America has become a hub of America’s economy and farming is once again a family affair. There are very few blacks in rural America except for the farm laborers and the elderly who are physically and economically unable to leave. The overwhelming majority of blacks are concentrated in a few urban areas that are all but ignored by the government even though they are controlled by black politicians. These areas are quickly deteriorating and their occupants have all but lost hope for a better way of life.
Unless something dramatic is done today this imaginary scene will come true. The responsibility for preventing it falls first on those holding our imaginary press conference for it is they who should be dealing with the struggle for blacks to maintain, even increase their land holdings in this country. One can ask where they are today. Land ownership affects all blacks. Some estimate that nearly half of the blacks who hold ownership interest in rural land are living in urban areas. It baffles me how some of our political leaders can speak of economic development and independence and ignore the land issue.
Too many black political and economic leaders still consider black economic independence to be synonymous with more jobs. By jobs they mean working for the typical
industries located primarily in urban areas. The fact is, these jobs are actually increasing black economic dependence. This becomes apparent when one looks at the present unemployment picture for blacks in these urban areas, many of whom had left the rural South in search of the American dream. So to push for jobs alone is not the answer. We must pressure the black leadership to accord the land issue the same attention and respect it does the more glamorous issues such as voting rights, integration, and stopping Bork. This is not to say that Bork is not important, but you can have nine Supreme Court justices, all of them black, and if you cannot feed yourself it does no good. The leadership must recognize that.
Land ownership-development is just as important and may well make it easier for us to accomplish our objectives in these other areas because we can then operate from a position of economic strength, not just as consumers. In short, economic independence through the control of natural resources-in this case, land-enhances political and social independence. During the coming months when the black vote will be a valuable commodity, we must make black land retention and development an integral part of the test by which we will judge political candidates and those individuals and organizations that support them.
Also key participants in our imaginary press conference are our black religious leaders. The church has always been the source of inspiration for blacks, especially during periods of intense struggle and suppression. We must have the black church’s support during this crisis; it is their membership that will suffer most if the trend of black land loss is not stopped. Many black ministers do not see black land ownership as important to their agenda. I cannot argue with the fact that there are other important issues, however, being the good Christian that I am, I believe that it is a sin not to be good stewards of the land.
Our foreparents have a history of good land stewardship. It was through recently freed slaves-freed, uneducated and deeply religious slaves-that we were able to amass that fifteen million acres of land in the early 1900s. They recognized the importance of nourishing and being nourished by the land. It was obvious that land stewardship was deeply ingrained in their religious faith. Modern-day black Christians have somehow lost the connection between the land and God. Like the politician, the church too must be judged and held accountable by how it stands and participates on the land issue.
FINALLY I WANT TO SAY to our white brethren in the religious, political and grassroots arenas that the so-called rural crisis can never be over unless blacks are full participants in its solution. You cannot advocate agricultural legislation or programs that do not contain remedies for the black land-loss problem. For you, too, must share in the blame for the current state of blacks in agriculture. Prior to the current crisis blacks were fighting the battle virtually alone. Yet in too many cases it was the white and his friends at the courthouses and the county FmHA offices that were causing blacks to lose their land-land that was used to increase white operations. We have been and continue to be more than willing to welcome you to the struggle and even fight for issues that may not have a direct bearing on the small black farmer. We do this because we believe that a policy detrimental to any family farmer is wrong and should be fought. But one of my fears is that once the current crisis is over blacks again will be left to fight alone.
I see encouraging signs in the joint efforts of black and white farm organizations like the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, Prairiefire, Family Farm Coalition, and others. I think we are on the verge of creating a movement unparalleled in American history. We must take advantage of the opportunity for it will not present itself again. If we do miss this opportunity then it is possible that grassroots and progressive white leaders will also be participants in our imaginary press conference, because the farms will be owned by a few corporations that will give us all a lesson on what it means to control the land.
Edward Pennick is director of the Emergency Land Fund. Mark Ritchie, a native Georgian, is an agricultural policy analyst with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.
The articles by Pennick and Ritchie are based on remarks they made recently in Atlanta at the conference, “Urban Connections to the Rural Crisis,” sponsored by the Federation of Southern Cooperatives and the National Council of Churches.