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Is Memphis sleeping on millions in farmers’ suit?

  • Written by Tony Jones

Thomas Burrell-300African Americans in Memphis are missing out on potential millions in funds from the $1.25 billion lawsuit fund pool created to pay families of farmers discriminated against by the Department of Agriculture.

So says Thomas Burrell, president of the Memphis arm of the Black Farmers & Agriculturalists Association, Inc.

On Monday (March 25), Burrell will conduct the final workshop seeking fund applicants. It will be from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Thousand Oaks Marriott.

"This is it," said Burrell, emphatically sounding off during a telephone interview with The New Tri-State Defender, following a session at Mississippi Blvd. Christian Church this past Monday.

Burrell is currently barnstorming the nation to spread the news and try to generate as many applicants as possible.

"There are just too many people sleeping on this money. If anyone in your family owned a farm, you may have money coming to you," he said.

Eligible recipients may qualify to receive up to $50,000 each, said Burrell.

"There are over 7,000 eligible recipients here. Mississippi, the entire state is number one. Alabama, the entire state, is number two. Memphis has the third largest claimants, bigger than any other city in this country."

You do not have to have ever lived on a farm to apply.

"People have to understand that it is not a farmer's lawsuit, it is a discrimination lawsuit," said Burrell. "If you are the heir of a farmer, or an heir to anyone (on a farm) that was discriminated against, you may qualify to receive funds."

The suit establishing the final fund pool is known as Pigman II. On Feb. 18, 2010, U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric Holder and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced the resolution of the lawsuit by establishing a $1.25 billion fund to be administered by a nonjudicial process.

Alluding with irony to the theme of the iconic "Beverly Hillbillies" television show, Burrell adds, "Think about it. This (pattern of discrimination) is why we packed up and moved to Beverly Hills, and why we packed up and moved to Memphis in the first place because we were discriminated against on the farms.

"How many of us have family members that left Arkansas or Mississippi to come here because they were discriminated against. That is what this suit addresses."

Those who may be daunted because they do not possess – or cannot find – paper work to support their claim should not worry, Burrell said.

"It was anticipated that people would have no paperwork," he said. "There were no records kept back then, so that's no problem. If you are the heir of anyone that was discriminated against, you are eligible to file on their behalf."

Burrell acknowledges that he is highly frustrated by the lack of aggressiveness here in going after the funds. From his vantage point, it doesn't help that the application ballooned from four to sixteen pages.

"Now they're asking the same question on three or four different levels and it has made it a tangle for a lot of people. When the suit was first settled, it took us four pages to get people paid. Like the young people say, 'What's up with that?' I think it was designed to weed people out."

Plus, funding that provided for attorneys to assist people with their claim has been cut, creating an even more daunting situation.

"There have been people who have been denied because they filled out the papers wrong. It's full of legalese and we don't have enough people to help us," said Burrell.

"We can only help so many that come forward, and we have to take care of our members first."

His real displeasure is aimed at the standing civil rights organizations.

"We have been talking about 'economic development, economic development, economic development' for decades and here it is right in our faces and nothing's been done about it," said Burrell.

"I can understand why the attorneys may not be able to work pro-bono; most African-American attorneys are operating on limited budgets anyway. Asking them to do this pro-bono is challenging.

"But the real problem is that the traditional civil rights agencies have unfortunately not come forward to help," said Burrell.

"This is the largest civil rights lawsuit settlement in history and it just seems natural to me that they would be on the front line helping people with this. They were required to sign off on the lawsuit, so why should you have to ask them to come and participate to help these heirs receive their just due. They know the importance of this suit."

According to Burrell, there are thousands of heirs who may not understand the terms well enough to fill out their claim.

"There may be thousands or even tens of thousands of eligible people that will be left out."

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