Ralph Paige, a community organizer who helped African-American family farmers in the South stay on their land, obtain access to loans and sue the federal government, resulting in one of the largest civil rights settlements in history, died June 28 at a hospital in Atlanta. He was 74.
The cause was congestive heart failure, said his daughter, Kenyatta Carter.
A Georgia native, Paige gave voice to thousands of struggling black farmers and small-business owners through the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund, a nonprofit organization.
Paige, who joined the group in 1969 and was executive director from 1985 until his retirement in 2015, helped organize black farm families into large economic cooperatives to give them more purchasing and marketing power. The federation began with 22 cooperatives and grew to 75 during Paige’s tenure.
Under his leadership, the organization also educated African-American families on how to keep their land through wills, estate plans and deeds, and created community credit unions that members could draw from to finance farming operations and personal needs, including sending their children to school.
With other advocacy groups such as the National Black Farmers Association, Paige also helped expose years of discrimination by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which had for years disproportionately delayed or denied loans to black farmers. In 1983, President Ronald Reagan dismantled USDA’s civil rights office, which provided oversight of how loans were approved or denied, and it remained shuttered until the Clinton administration reopened it in 1996.
As a result of neglect or racial bias during that period and earlier, many farmers went out of business, lost their land and fell into debt. A later USDA-commissioned audit found that loans to black farmers averaged 25 percent less than those to white farmers, and that white farmers received a greater proportion of disaster payments.
“I think the government should be concerned about all small farmers,” Paige told the Associated Press in 1990. “They’re the backbone of this country.”
Two years later, Paige led a caravan of black farmers to Capitol Hill and the USDA headquarters to protest the agency’s discrimination. He brought with him a live pig to underscore the federation’s disdain.
Paige helped file a Freedom of Information Act request seeking any civil rights complaints leveled at the USDA. He received thousands of documents, including letters the USDA sent farmers admitting discrimination, said John Zippert, the federation’s director of program operations. Those FOIA letters – along with original copies retained by the farmers – were integral in helping lawyers put together a class-action lawsuit, and Paige helped identify and prepare plaintiffs.
In 1997, lawyers brought the suit, Pigford v. Glickman, against the USDA, claiming discrimination and failure to investigate complaints from 1981 to 1996. The case was settled two years later, with over $1 billion going toward more than 15,000 farmers as compensation.
Many farmers were late to apply for the settlement, and Paige played a leading role in helping recruit and organize a second group of claimants. In 2010, the federal government settled for an additional $1.25 billion with the farmers who filed late, and Congress was asked to appropriate the money.
“In the 10 years since the original claim period closed, many of these farmers died; others lost their farms or left farming altogether,” Paige wrote in an opinion piece published by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2010, months before the appropriations bill was signed, making the combined payout one of the biggest civil rights settlements in American history.
“It is a tragic injustice,” he wrote, “that thousands of black farmers are still being denied relief for discriminatory behavior from their own government.”
Ralph McDaniel Paige was born Aug. 28 or 29, 1943, in LaGrange, Georgia, the seventh of 10 children of a laborer father and a homemaker mother. He had a home birth, and the date was recorded inside a family Bible, which was lost during a fire years later, his daughter Kenyatta said. Paige celebrated his birthday on both days.
In 1965, he married Bernice Jones. In addition to his wife, of Pine Mountain, Georgia, survivors include two children, Kenyatta Carter and Bernard Paige, both of Palmetto, Georgia; three sisters; two brothers; and five grandchildren.
In 1967, Paige received a bachelor’s degree in physical education from Fort Valley State College (now University), a historically black college in Georgia. He taught high school physical education and was a football coach before becoming an organizer for the West Georgia Farmer’s Cooperative and later the Federation of Southern Cooperatives.
“He got involved because it was his hometown,” said Cornelius Blanding, executive director of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund. “Ralph loved connecting with and working with people, and he cared deeply about people – people who were disadvantaged, people who were overlooked, people who were struggling. That’s what drove him.”
In 1985, Paige spearheaded a merger between the federation and the Emergency Land Fund, resulting in the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund, which had the expanded mission of helping African-American farm families retain their land. He often visited farmers working in sweltering heat, trying to understand their challenges.
“I went cross-country, from farm to farm, sometimes riding on the back of a truck going from a tomato farm to a cucumber farm to an onion farm, and that’s what we ate for the day, what was on those trucks,” Paige’s son, Bernard, said about working with his father.
In the 1980s, Paige began to highlight the lack of federal attention given to the plight of black farmers, eventually leading to the Pigford settlement and inspiring similar efforts by American Indian and Latino farmers.
The initial Pigford settlement “is significant and historic, but it in no way restores the economic impact of millions of acres lost to the black community because of discrimination,” Paige told the publication In These Times in 1999. But the settlement, he added, “could be the beginning of a much needed healing process.”