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Ever since 'forty acres and a mule'

Farming near Tupelo, Mississippi. Federation of Southern Cooperatives Land Assistance Fund photo.

Farming near Tupelo, Mississippi. Federation of Southern Cooperatives Land Assistance Fund photo. When Shirley Sherrod told that NAACP gathering this spring about being asked to help a white farmer, she referred to the long, long history of African American farmer for whom there was no help and no justice. "I was struggling with the fact that so many black people have lost their farmland," she said, "and here I was faced with having to help a white person save their land."The Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund, the nonprofit Sherrod worked for when she met that farmer in the 1980s, provides a timeline of just how sorry America's treatment of its black farmers has been. It starts with the Civil War-era legend of forty acres and a mule for freed slaves and continues to this day. The Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association notes that as recently as 1920, one in seven farms was owned by a black family. Today, it's one in 100.What happened to those black farmers? A lot of them appear to have been starved off their land by discrimination from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In 1999, the USDA settled a class-action case then known as Pigford vs. Glickman to compensate black farmers who'd been discriminated against when it came to applying for the same loans white farmers used to sustain their operations. (UPDATE: Great post on Sherrod's role as a plaintiff here.)The USDA continues to operate under the consent decree with regular reports from a court-ordered monitor, and black farmers continue to press for overdue relief.This is the struggle Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack responded to in proclaiming a "new civil rights era for USDA." It's the same struggle Shirley Sherrod responded to when she talked about her own journey toward seeing the problem as broader than race. "God will show you things and he'll put things in your path so that you realize that the struggle is really about poor people," she said, showing incredible generosity of spirit and more than a dollop of wisdom. As he works to make good on the many wrongs of America's past, Vilsack should think about keeping the Shirley Sherrods of the world right by his side. He needs all of them he can get.