In Memoriam: Ralph Paige’s History Lessons

By focusing on the rights of marginalized rural farmers in the South, Ralph Paige (1943-2018) had an impact on the nation as a whole.

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The family farm and civil rights movements lost one of their champions when Ralph Paige passed away June 28 at age 74. Paige, the long-time leader of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund, has been celebrated for his life and long legacy of supporting African American farmers, rural communities and cooperative economic development.

Ralph’s legacy reminds us of the critical role that rural leaders and communities have played in the effort to establish racial equality and civil rights in America.

I had the pleasure of working with Ralph on numerous occasions, though I was pretty much a policy and community organizing novice at the time. By the time I came along, Ralph was often the elder statesmen in the room. He was always someone who family farm advocates respected and listened to on matters of policy and strategy. He helped build connections between white and African American family farmers.

Over drinks after long days of meetings, Ralph told stories about the heroes of the civil rights movement all over the rural South. Those were extremely tough and decisive times, it’s worth remembering, with levels of widespread violence and vitriol that can make some of today’s extreme rhetoric seem quaint. African Americans living through the period founded hundreds of community-based groups and cooperative projects in the 1960s and 1970s. Many of them served rural areas. One of those groups was the Federation of Southern Cooperatives.

Ralph’s informal history lessons taught me about the deep and systematic oppression African American farmers and landowners have faced during just the past century. In 1920, there were approximately 925,000 African American farmers nationwide. USDA’s most recent Ag Census found only 33,371 black farmers – only 1.4% of all U.S. farmers.

How did that happen? One convenient story is that the decline of African American farmers in the South was merely part of the larger economic trends that consolidated small farms. Or, if the story is tied to race, the drop in Southern black farmers is described as solely part of the Great Migration of African Americans to the North after World War I.

Ralph Paige, right, at a Farm Aid press conference with (left to right) Jesse Jackson, Willie Nelson, and Jim Hightower. (Photo courtesy of Farm Aid)

Ralph told the rest of the story. Black farmers were regularly excluded from participating in USDA crop programs. In many counties, African Americans were not allowed to participate in local USDA accountability committees. Government-supplied credit to pay for tractors, seeds, land and agricultural facilities was often provided to white farmers while their black neighbors were left out. In short, the historical evidence now clearly documents the USDA’s racial discrimination. Federal policies were used to pick white winners at the expense of African American land and assets.

But, thankfully, Ralph and others helped ensure that the story didn’t end there. African American farmers brought a years-long lawsuit against the federal government to set the record straight and achieve some measure of justice. That fight led to the historic Pigford I and Pigford II class action cases, some of the largest successful discrimination lawsuits against the federal government. These consent decrees yielded $2.5 billion in payments to thousands of African American farmers.

Not satisfied with discrimination against any farmer, Ralph also supported settlements for Native American, Hispanic and women farmers.

For this and other work, Ralph was inducted into the Cooperative Hall of Fame in 2004. The Cooperative Development Institute, at the time, noted that under Ralph’s guidance, “the Federation has developed more than 200 units of low-income housing, 18 community credit unions, 75 cooperatives, and an award-winning rural training center. In addition, it has been the primary organization representing Black farmers and fighting the precipitous decline of minority land ownership and independence.”

We sometimes hear that if we want to have a big impact, we need to be focusing our efforts on big cities. Thank goodness Ralph didn’t let that sentiment interfere with his work for, in, and with rural communities. Because his work on behalf of a primarily rural constituency changed things for the better – all over America.

Bryce Oates covers conservation and public-lands issues for the Daily Yonder. He’s a farm boy from southwest Missouri who lives in the state of Washington.

 

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