Late Friday afternoon in an almost empty U.S. Capitol, the Senate passed by a voice vote approximately $4.6 billion in payments for black farmers and American Indian tribes who claimed discrimination by the federal government.
Included was a $1.25 billion fund to be used for payment to black farmers who settled a racial discrimination lawsuit against the Department of Agriculture in 1999 but have not yet been paid.
The bill will have to pass in the House of Representatives before it can go to President Obama for a signature. According to The Associated Press, the payments will be funded by cutting money from a surplus to nutrition programs for women and children and increasing customs user fees.
Several American Indian tribes will receive $3.4 billion to settle claims that they were cheated out of land royalties by the Interior Department since 1887.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said approving the money was important to him personally.
“The agreement that we reached shows what can happen when Democrats and Republicans come together to do the right thing. I commend my colleagues on both sides of the aisle who put their differences aside to make sure that justice was no longer denied to these Americans,” Reid said in a statement.
A group of black farmers filed a class action lawsuit — known as the Pigford case — alleging that the Department of Agriculture discriminated against them when doling out farm loans.
John Boyd, founder and president of the National Black Farmer’s Association and fourth-generation farmer, said in an interview with the PBS NewsHour that lobbying the Senate to pass the bill was the hardest thing he has done in his life.
“This is long, long overdue justice for our nation’s black farmers — many have died at the plow waiting for justice,” Boyd said. “This is a step in the right direction for America and race relations in this country. It shows that if there’s injustice that America can do the right thing and address it.”
Boyd has driven his tractor to the U.S. Capitol to draw attention to the bill. He said that the House Democratic leadership told him they would make the bill a priority when they return after the Thanksgiving holiday.
According to the AP, the government has already paid out more than $1 billion to 16,000 farmers and that the new money is for an estimated 70,000 to 80,000 people who missed a filing deadline.