Between 1940 and 1974, the number of African American farmers fell from 681,790 to just 45,594—a drop of 93 percent. In Dispossession: Discrimination Against African American Farmers in the Age of Civil Rights, historian Pete Daniel analyzes this decline and chronicles black farmers’ fierce struggles to remain on the land in the face of discrimination by bureaucrats in the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). He exposes the shameful fact that at the very moment civil rights laws promised to end discrimination, hundreds of thousands of black farmers lost their hold on the land as they were denied loans, information, and access to the programs essential to survival in a capital-intensive farm structure.
In the following excerpt from Dispossession (pp. 106-110), Daniel explains the purposeful ineptness and humiliation tactics used by officials during the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service (ASCS) elections of 1965 to undermine the presence and efforts of civil rights workers, particularly those affiliated with Congress of Racial Equality (CORE).
As the ASCS elections approached in 1965, civil rights workers pestered USDA officials for information and procedures. Stung by complaints about the 1964 elections and desiring to present a better public stance toward civil rights, ASCS officials from the national to the county level promised cooperation with African American farmers. A new rule instructing county committees to place on the ballot the “names of Negro farmers in relationship to the percentage of Negro farmers in the parish and communities” at first glance seemed advantageous to black farmers, but it led to acrimony as white committees picked a slate of compliant candidates while blacks nominated by petition endured a cumbersome approval process. Voicing what became a common complaint, Joel Horowitz of the West Tennessee Voters’ Project wrote from Fayette County that the all-white ASCS committee selected black nominees who “have reputations in the Negro community for cooperating with the whites to the detriment of Negroes.” Ballots would thus include black farmers handpicked by county ASCS committees plus successful petitioners, which, as intended, would spread votes among numerous candidates.
In practice, the ASCS’s promised reforms did not work smoothly. In Louisiana’s Claiborne and DeSoto Parishes, the ASCS committees placed the names of deceased black farmers on the ballot, forcing new elections. CORE’s Harold Ickes confronted Madison Parish’s ASCS office manager, James B. Stewart, about why black farmers’ wives had to obtain their ballots from the ASCS office instead of receiving them by mail like white women. Continue reading ‘Excerpt: Dispossession, by Pete Daniel’ »
-  F. Wainwright Blease to Victor B. Phillips, July 6, 1965, box 321, Central Files, Records of the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service, Record Group 145 (CFASCS, RG 145), National Archives and Records Administration, Archives II, College Park, Md. (NARA); Joel Horowitz to Orville Freeman, September 9, 1965, box 12, Chronological Files, Office of the Staff Director, Records Relating to Special Projects, 1960-70, U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Record Group 453, NARA. See also “Proposal by Rural Advancement Fund of the National Sharecroppers Fund, Inc. for Massive ASCS Election Campaign in Alabama and Other Southern States,” box 32, Rural Advancement Fund, folder 26, National Sharecroppers Fund Papers, Walter Reuther Library, Wayne State University, Detroit, Mich. (NSF Papers). ↩