Muslim Press has conducted an interview with Heather Gray, an activist who has worked in support of Black farmer for 24 years, to discuss the inequalities that target African-Americans.

Heather Gray

   Heather Gray


Click here to read the second part of the interview.

The following is the first part of this interview:

Muslim Press: What was the outcome of Jim Crow laws for the Black farming community?

Heather Gray: When the Jim Crow discriminatory laws from the early 1900’s were finally terminated in the United States with the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the 1964 Civil Rights Act, black farmers became the victims of repercussions by whites in the South. Therefore, in the immediate sense, the outcome of the end of Jim Crow was not positive for Black farmers. In fact, civil rights and voting rights did not in any way result in an enhancement or enlightenment throughout the agriculture infrastructure in the region, and that is likely an understatement. Historically every now and then there have been waves of rural Blacks who leave the South for northern states because of southern oppression and this was one of those eras. For many, this reality might seem contradictory given these landmark acts that ended Jim Crow, but often the struggles of Black farmers are left out of the historical scenario.

In order to understand the struggles of Black farmers at the end of the Jim Crow laws, it is important to know something about the infrastructure of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).  

Why is this the case?

This is so because every state in the union has a USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA) whose chief administrator is a political appointee by the President in office at the time. The other FSA staff in the state’s counties are not political appointees but full-time government employees. This means that at the county level the staff largely reflects the culture of the area. In other words, in the South, that meant “white” county employees and those whose views reflect the historically racist “white” south.

The control that the FSA has over agricultural production in the US is immense. It is largely from the FSA that farmers are able to receive financial assistance in terms of loans and other educational information to help them advance and compete in the world of agriculture. There is also a close relationship between the FSA staff and their local banks in rural towns regarding rural development and assistance to farmers.  Banks and the FSA are of the same culture and same interests, same church. In fact, the FSA also has local committees of farmers that are elected to the committees to make determinations about agriculture production and land appropriations in their areas.

In the 1960s after the demise of the Jim Crow laws, Black farmers then, before, and after were not a part of the FSA and banking infrastructure. Nor were they represented on the local committees, although civil rights organizers in the South, along with Black farmers themselves, were working hard to try to get Black representation on these committees that has rarely resulted in successful efforts even to this day.

This meant that wherever Black farmers turned, whether at the FSA offices, the local banks, or their white farmer neighbors serving on the agriculture committees, they were up against the traditional white supremacist attitudes and behavior.

And what is the proscribed behavior of the Black farming community in the South? It has been, historically, acquiescence to white directives, lack of aggression, never to be overly successful – basically to bow down to white leaders and overall adhere to their directives, otherwise you would not likely receive services if the white leaders chose to offer you anything in the first place. Sometimes your very life was at stake.

Black farmers were vulnerable under these circumstances but many supported the civil rights workers in South anyway. After all, Black farmers were the ones with some financial resources and with land. For many of the farmers, this assistance was the ultimate sacrifice.

Importantly, as but one example, the legendary 1965 Voting Rights March from Selma-to-Montgomery on Highway 80 could probably never have occurred were it not for Black farmers. Black farmers, who owned land along Highway 80, allowed the integrated mixture of black and white marchers to stay on their land during the 54-mile march. This would never have been allowed on white-owned farms along that route.  

Therefore, as Black farmers were often the levers upon which the movement rested in rural areas, the conservative and reactionary whites in the South went after them with a vengeance that included, of course, the staff of the USDA. Countless black farmers were forced off their land as a result. 

It is often said that every group “ discriminates", but “ racism" is the having the power to enforce your discriminatory attitudes. White southerners had that power in every conceivable way. They were in the true sense of this statement, the "racists”.

In his book “Dispossession: Discrimination against African American Farmers in the Age of Civil Rights” (2013), historian Pete Daniel describes the USDA and the white South’s tactics. Even he who had been doing this research for some time was shocked at what he found was happening in the 1960s in the South against Black farmers:

The inability to acquire loans had far-reaching consequences for farmers, and Daniel finds evidence of discrimination throughout the Farmers Home Administration's dispensation of loans. Rural blacks active in civil rights movements, he argues, “faced huge risks,” as the withholding of loans became “a punitive tool”. But even African-American farmers with no connection to activism received fewer loans relative to their white counterparts. Worse still, according to Daniel, “[t]he FHA (earlier version of FSA) sometimes lured black farmers into debt, failed to supervise them, and then foreclosed” on their accounts. The white elite who controlled the USDA used their power to force African Americans from their land. (Essays in History)

Yet, this on-going discrimination against Black farmers in the South helped lay the groundwork for the successful Black farmer class action lawsuit against the USDA in 1998 (Pigford v Glickman). It was the largest lawsuit ever filed against the US government that resulted in more than a billion dollars going into Black farming community. Invariably the Black community will not allow this discriminatory treatment against them to be on going. They will and do act!

MP: How do you analyze the role that Black farmers played for equality and justice?

Heather Gray: To understand this question, it is important to look at the role black farmers have played overall in American history. But I also need to preface this by saying that whoever controls the food production will then control the people.  Black farmers have always played a significant role in feeding their families and the black community and by virtue of that have invariably served a leading role in their respective areas. But in the South, the challenge for Black farmers has been their white farmer neighbors and, of course, the southern white elite.

Slavery was the origin of the subsequent black farm production in America.  And slavery was comprised of Africans who were wrenched from their homelands in Africa – mostly from West Africa – to serve the interests of the ruling white elite in the South. This largely meant, for Africans, laboring in the fields without pay, with no rights, etc. This led, then, to concentrated wealth by these slave owners that was based on the toil and degradation of millions of African slaves.

One of the more potent facets of the slave system in the South is that the plantation owners attempted to justify their actions through Biblical or biological explanations.

The Biblical justification was largely from the “Curse of Ham”

The Book of Genesis records an instance of Noah cursing his son Ham's descendants to be slaves. Although there is no biblical evidence that Ham was the "father" of African peoples, various Jewish, Christian and Islamic writers came to believe that he was, and their association helped to justify centuries of African enslavement. ( NPR)

The biological explanation used was mostly from Darwin’s theory of evolution:

Contrary to popular belief, racism did not cause New World slavery, but rather slavery exacerbated racism as people looked for justification for their practices.5 But by proclaiming that all human beings had descended from the same source, namely “a hairy quadruped, furnished with a tail and pointed ears, probably arboreal in its habits”, Darwin gave the slavery lobby the ultimate in ‘scientific’ justification to claim that blacks were subhuman. It was simple—they had not yet evolved as far towards human-ness as whites. Stephen Jay Gould (1941–2002), a leading evolutionist, Marxist, and staunch anti-racist, admitted: “Biological arguments for racism may have been common before 1850, but they increased by orders of magnitude following the acceptance of evolutionary theory.” (Creation)

As would be the case if whites had been enslaved, whites knew that blacks would, like all human beings, attempt to free themselves from oppression.  So regardless of the justifications of the Ham and Darwin’s theories above, I would venture to say that whites, in fact, knew none of this was true.

It is interesting to point out that African slaves in the southern part of the United States always resisted this oppression, as whites knew they would, so the white slave owners set up systems to prevent the slave resistance from being successful. For example, they created slave patrols to capture escaped slaves; to passage of the draconian slave codes in an attempt to prevent rebellions and to totally subjugate and deny rights and freedom of slaves; to Jim Crow laws in the early 1900s after slavery that completely separated the black and white communities in the South and denied their rights of citizenship, such as voting.

The politics of agriculture in the rural South is central to understanding the struggles for freedom and independence by Blacks in the United States.

The South has historically been mostly agricultural. After the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation and the Reconstruction period, Blacks took advantage of the opportunity to acquire land for agriculture.  Agriculture, after all, had largely been their profession. In fact, 1910 was the peak of land ownership for blacks.  Collectively, blacks owned 15 million acres of land of which 218,000 black farmers are full or part owners.  However, a steady decline of landownership begins after 1910. Today there are estimates of approximately 36,000 Black farmers owning some 4.5 million acres. Nevertheless, the numbers of white farmers also decreased as agriculture became more industrialized.

As most blacks in the South were in rural areas, the farmers owning land played a central role in supporting the black community and providing food for the community altogether.  Ultimately, they did have some resources and were renowned for sharing the land and food to those in need.

Many Blacks were also sharecroppers or tenant farmers, which was a Jim Crow adaptation to slavery. As tenant farmers, blacks lived and worked on white owned plantations; purchased seeds and equipment from the white owner; gave a portion of their crop production to the white owner, etc. The corruption and fraud was immense by the whites. White owners virtually always managed to keep the blacks and, in fact, white tenant farmers as well, in debt to more easily control them.

In fact, Jim Crow laws in the South in the early 1900s, and laws prior to Jim Crow in the late 1800s, were created largely to maintain a conflict between black and white workers to then keep the wages down altogether in southern agriculture and other industries in the region.

Land-owning black farmers were invariably leaders in their black community’s local agricultural system, of course, and in the church communities where they lived. In fact, many black churches were built on black-owned land. Black farmers also helped the civil rights workers in the South whenever they could by offering financial support and/or access to land for camping etc. They played a leading role in the important Freedom Summer activism in 1964 in Mississippi. As noted by the Smithsonian Museum:

(Civil rights workers) poured into Mississippi a thousand strong, activists and volunteers, intent on ending racial repression through the Freedom Summer Project. The effort's success relied on local black landowners, families who offered shelter and a degree of economic independence in the form of dirt and deeds. (Smithsonian)

And the black tenant farmers? After the Reconstruction period in the late 1800s a populist movement of both white and black farmers and laborers came together to challenge the controlling white elite. They were defeated but they never lost hope in the collaboration even after the Jim Crow laws were passed in the early 1900s across the South. By 1935, the Southern Tenants Farmers Union was created of both blacks and whites coming together to yet again challenge the white elite. It then led to the founding of other collective and/or cooperative entities. These included the regional Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund in 1967 to assist black farmers maintain their land base after being threatened for their role in the civil rights movement. This work was spawned by the cooperative work and economic education by Father A.J. McKnight in Louisiana who helped create and direct the Southern Cooperative Development Fund. Others included other organizations in states throughout the region working with black farmers and including the Nation of Islam’s sizable farm in South Georgia.

The fact is, black farmers have always been there to help the community in its demands for justice, even in the face of intimidation.

MP: What’s your take on the Black Lives Matter and its future? How successful has this movement been?

Heather Gray: The Black Lives Matter movement is so incredibly important. It has raised the consciousness of the American people and in the international context as well. Importantly, it is organized by young Black Americans who are stating that they’ve had enough. They are saying that America, and whites in particular, need to be respectful of humanity and specifically of black lives that are being sacrificed at the behest of the American police, corporate entities, prison systems and the American government overall.

Social change is never easy. It ebbs and flows but the changes have to come from the people. And this is what we are witnessing with “Black Lives Matter” as we also witnessed with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the 1960s.

This is invariably what alters the course in the American consciousness and ultimately policy changes in the national and local governments. And by that I mean precisely what the Black Lives Matter movement is doing which is on-going collective education, advocacy and directives for needed change in American policies and actions as articulated by the victims themselves.

As Martin Luther King would say, in the steps of Non-Violent Social Change, complaining and protesting is one thing, but what is most important is developing the solutions. You certainly don’t want your protagonists, as in the case the police departments across the country, or the US congress and US courts, for that matter, to come up with solutions because more than likely you wouldn’t trust them. You need to come up with solutions and advocate for them and this is what the Black Lives Matter movement is doing.

For example, in their platform for “A Cut in US Military Expenditures and A Reallocation of those Funds to Invest in Domestic Infrastructure and Community Wellbeing” they identify the first problem as follows:

America is an empire that uses war to expand territory and power. American wars are unjust, destructive to Black communities globally and do not keep Black people safe locally. The military industrial complex offers massive profits to private corporations from the death of our global diaspora by handing out massive government contracts to expand US military presence across the globe, while resources for domestic infrastructure and social programs to meet the needs of Black people and working class communities within the US diminishes.

They go on to offer a vast array of changes that need to be made in huge reductions in the US military budget and for those recovered public funds to then be used for domestic enhancements in health, infrastructure, education etc.


Heather Gray is a writer and radio producer on WRFG-FM in Atlanta, Georgia and has also lived in Canada, Australia, Singapore, briefly in the Philippines and has traveled in southern Africa. For 24 years she has worked in support of Black farmer issues and in cooperative economic development in the rural South. She holds degrees in anthropology and sociology.