The Problem is Poverty
by Don Jelinek

Speech delivered at National Lawyers Guild convention in New York City, February 12, 1967. As reprinted from Black Protest: 350 Years of History, Documents, and Analyses, by Joanne Grant.
See Alabama ASCS Elections, 1966 — The Struggle Continues for background & more information.
See also Documents: ASCS Elections for related documents
See also Agriculture Stabilization & Conservation Service (ASCS) Elections for web links.

The problem, as you can see, is poverty. It is poverty that keeps the Negro in his place — poverty that keeps him from registering, poverty that keeps his children in segregated schools, poverty that keeps him from enjoying the comforts and privileges of white society. This poverty is enabling the white Southerner to enter upon a new post-Reconstruction period, when once again federal legislation is nullified and past gains are repealed. As things now stand in Alabama there are only two ways in which Negroes can be sure of equal opportunities. They can get themselves arrested and go to jail — where by recent court order, all phases of life must be integrated. Or they can join the Army and go off to Vietnam, where they can die alongside a white man.

The federal government can cure the problem of poverty. I'm not talking about a guaranteed annual income, or even any increased expenditure on the part of the federal government. I'm talking about providing the Southern Negro with millions of dollars — in cash, rights, and services — that are rightfully his, but are taken away by Southern-born, Southern-bred, and federally-salaried employees.

These human obstacles are usually known as county agents for federal programs in the South. Would you believe me if I told you that Negroes in any rural Southern county would rather have a sympathetic county agent than a sympathetic governor? For these county agents can exercise the power of life or death over the day-to-day economic life of the Negro farmer. These agents have one or two other things in common. They all dispense federal funds, and most are paid with federal funds. Yet all too often, they work to frustrate the expressed purposes of their government.

Of course, these agents aren't the only ones keeping the Negro down. The economic pressures on Negro farmers begin with the plantation owner, who not only provides what meager employment there is, but runs the company store and keeps his employees wrapped in a continuous line of credit. High city and county officials are usually the attorneys for the plantation owner, and mayors and judges are his cronies. There is little enough we can do about this part of the economic structure. We can attempt to stop the landlord from evicting tenants who register to vote or participate in civil rights activities — but few of these cases have been successful. (Morty Stavis is looking into a case in Lowndes County where the plantation owner required his tenants to say they were illiterate, so they would have to take an Alabama election official into the voting booth with them.) The plantation owners and their allies in the local government can dilute civil rights gains in all sorts of ways.

But the county agent, more often than not, is in league with these people. He is one of them; and they command his loyalty — not the federal government, and certainly not the Negro farmers he is supposed to serve. Usually, the agent's office is in the county courthouse. For all practical purposes, he is a county official, not a federal representative. There is no question that the federal government has the power and the ability to control these agents. But does it control them? Rarely.

Some of the agencies I'm talking about are the Agricultural Stabilization arid Conservation Service (ASCS), the Farmers Home Administration (FHA), the Soil Conservation Service (SCS), the Federal Extension Service (FES) and the low-income housing projects supported by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The ASCS, which we'll discuss in greater detail later, doles out $43 million annually in Alabama alone [equal to $300 million in 2013 dollars), subsidizing cotton farmers and others against the decreasing world market.

The ASCS in each county tells farmers how much they can plant. For example, a white man may have 25 acres and a Negro may have 25 acres. But in a given case, a white man is given all 25 acres for cotton while the Negro is given only 5 acres. The result is that the Negro must work for the white man to support his farm, because at this time other crops are not feasible without co-oping.

The ASCS also measures the land. There are indications that another acre or two of that decreasing allotment is being taken away by a loaded measurement. Needless to say, the Negro farmer has neither the money to hire a professional nor the expertise himself to challenge the measurement. In addition, the ASCS controls its own elections to determine who shall dispense the funds. More about this later.

Next in importance is probably the Federal Extension Service (FES). This agency's job is to provide technical aid in all areas of farming, including livestock mortality problems, pasture problems, corn storage, livestock fertility problems, dairy farming, home management, veterinary medicine, and services to youth. FES, which spent $2.5 million in Alabama last year, denies this technical assistance to Negro farmers, preventing them from properly using the land not allotted for cotton.

For example, I have in my hand a proposal for an OEO grant of $218,000 for an Alabama Negro farmers cooperative association. Almost every penny of the grant would go to supply experts who are already on the FES payroll but are not available to Negro farmers. If OEO grants the $218,000, the 800 farmers involved estimate that their long-range gains would be substantial. In any agency such as FES, it is the denial of advice that hurts the Negro farmer, not the denial of money.

When it comes to capital expenditures to improve the land, increase the size of the farm or acquire additional livestock or equipment, the Negro farmer looks to the Farmers Home Administration (FHA), but usually in vain. This agency, which doles out $25 million in Alabama, grants loans to Negroes for operating expenses which further increase his debt, but is loathe to provide money for the acquisition of land. I think of one farmer, Mr. Rogers, who was afraid even to let the FHA agent know that he was buying land lest the agent spread the word, which would eventually intimidate the white landowner involved from selling the land to a Negro. And when it comes to improving the land through sound conservation treatment and avoidance of soil exhaustion, the Negro farmer is supposed to turn to the Soil Conservation Service (SCS). This agency's expenditure of $4 million annually does not noticeably aid the Negro farmer, either. ...

There are over a quarter of a million Negro farmers in the South. This is the hard-core poverty belt. These are the Negroes who will be forced into the ghettos of Northern cities if their farms peter out. Federal money could give them a chance to work the land, more allotments of cotton to produce, improvement in farming and soil conditions and all the needed expertise to make a profit and employ more labor to work the land.

This is the briefest outline of a few of the federal regulatory agencies.

Now let me give you an illustration of what can happen when you take on one of these agencies. It is a story about the lawsuit we brought last summer against the United States Department of Agriculture and its ASCS, and the strange, even dramatic, ramifications of that suit.

Forgive me if I bore you with a few details about the ASCS, so you can understand what was at stake. The ASCS dispensed more than $15,000,000 in Alabama alone in 1966. It operates the cotton program in the South, and is responsible for allotting the acreage to be planted. I think it is fair to say that no cotton farmer — no matter how large or small — can survive by selling on the world market without government subsidies. But the farmer must limit his acreage if he wants to stay in the program.

So the national ASCS sets a national quota, the state ASCS the state quota and the county ASCS sets quotas for the individual farmers. The County tells you how much you can plant. The men who make these important decisions, and who appoint the county agent and other employees, are chosen in annual elections. In these elections — theoretically at least — all farmers, from sharecropper to plantation owner, have an equal vote. Nominations may be made by the people themselves and by the incumbent county committee. The system may sound good, but there are many ways to frustrate it, and in Alabama they have tried them all.

Before 1964, virtually no Negroes participated in the yearly elections. In the 1964 elections, when the Movement made its first effort to give Negro farmers a voice, the result was violence and large-scale intimidation. The federal government then tightened its regulations, but in 1965, the outcome of the elections was the same. No Negroes were elected to a county committee anywhere in Alabama — even in counties that are 80 percent Negro.

Violence was the successful tactic in 1964, but in 1965 fraud was the key. For example, in Lowndes County — which is 80 percept Negro — the incumbent county committee flooded the ballot with more than 70 names of Negroes, using fathers, brothers, and so on, to confuse and divide the Negro voters. The real Negro candidates were lost in the confusion, and the result, once again, was an all-white county committee, (This particular election was set aside by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.)

In 1966, the Movement was geared for a massive push. But the ASCS, on 35 days notice, set elections for August 15; instead of the usual October- November date. This broke the back of any effort to organize the electorate. It was at this point that LCDC was approached, and after a few futile phone calls to Washington, we began suit to delay the elections and at the same time reform the regulations. ...

Before the hearing, the judge urged a meeting with Department of Agriculture officials. This meeting was held in a massive conference room, with some 18 officials representing Agriculture and with myself and two DC local counsels representing the farmers. I produced affidavits of Negro residents and civil rights workers testifying to the abuses of county officials, failure to supply election information, and so on.

After four hours, I learned that there was a "delicate balance" between federal and state officials, that "great changes" had been accomplished, and that although no Negro had ever been elected, all would come to those who sat and waited, as opposed to those like us, who can never have enough. In the next days, preliminary conferences with the judge produced statements from the various officials that under no circumstances would the United States Department of Agriculture overrule a decision of the Alabama ASCS, and they doubted the court could order it to do so.

With those "hopeful" signs, the hearing began. While the negotiations were going on, 40 to 50 Negro farmers managed to drive to Washington in their old cars — along with Stokely Carmichael, whose presence provided the press. So we began to get front-page stories in the Washington Post.

Our first witness, Peter Agee of Marengo County, testified that he was threatened with death if he dared to take the stand in this case. The second witness told of bribes of increased allotments and livestock, conditional on his refusing to testify. That was followed by the introduction of a secret report, prepared by the Negro who headed the Agriculture Department's civil rights office, which began, "If you wish to transmit this report to the White House, you may wish to omit the sections entitled 'Evaluation'."

The next day, the government's lawyers quoted Secretary Freeman to the effect that the "delicate balance" could stand a 30-day extension of the election deadline. The farmers voted to accept this.

Subsequently, Peter Agee was shot at in his home, and forced to flee Marengo County. Eight other families who took part in the case were threatened with eviction (law suits are pending) Another district judge, Holtzoff, dismissed our suit, charging [that] administrative discrimination does not state a cause of action — this decision is presently on appeal. And the elections were lost anyhow, 30 days weren't enough. ...

Without going into great detail on other federal agencies, be assured that each one — to a greater or lesser degree-  — restricts the economic life of the Southern Negro. Nothing is being done to attack this situation. I know of no legal or civil rights group that is planning to undertake the work that is required. The work is dull, the work is tedious, and the work is difficult. But it must be done.

Copyright © Don Jelinek, 1967.

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