As extensive reporting from Breitbart.com, National Review, and, lately, the New York Times, makes clear, the Pigford affair is a sprawling mess of fraud and corruption that implicates unseemly trial lawyers leeching for fees, politicians eager to leverage shaky claims of discrimination into rewards for favored interest groups, and a panoply of opportunistic confidence men who acted individually and in concert to exploit the settlement process.
Perhaps the most visible figure in the latter class is Thomas Burrell, president of the 10,000-strong Black Farmers & Agriculturalists Association (BFAA) and an all-around gadfly who has been crusading for nearly 15 years to turn the original Pigford settlement into a one-stop shop for the adjudication of racial grievance via cash settlement.
Pigford as Reparations Burrell offers no autobiography on the amateurish BFAA website, but according to Lee Stranahan, a documentarian who has conducted thousands of hours of research and interviews for the upcoming film Pigford Blues, Burrell was a preacher and sometime farmer who was acquainted with some of the original plaintiffs in Pigford v. Glickman, the case that started it all. He founded the BFAA in Tennessee in 2000, after the first settlement was announced, and was among the first to take a, shall we say, expansive view of the class of black Americans entitled to compensation under it.
Despite the court’s restriction of the class to farmers active between 1983 and 1997 who had actively applied for and been denied a loan to the USDA as a result of discrimination, Burrell told a Mississippi newspaper in 2004 that all black farmers “and their heirs” should have been notified of the settlement and afforded the chance to claim the nearly automatic $50,000 payments it offered. And he put his mouth where the money was, building an expansive dues-paying membership and traveling to countless churches and community centers across the rural South to get the word out about the settlement.
In an interview with a Los Angeles newspaper that same year, he defended his habit of telling these audiences that Pigford was part of long-standing efforts to secure reparations for slavery. “What’s wrong with black folks getting reparations. . . ?” Burrell said. “If any group is entitled to reparations — if we’re not entitled to reparations, who should? We don’t have to apologize for asking for reparations no more than the Indians asking about sitting on a reservation.”
This 2012 video of Burrell speaking at a Memphis church is indicative. Beginning at the 2:05 mark, Burrell says: “We are at a crossroads as the sons and daughters of men and women who were brought to this country about 400 years ago. Our knowledge [sic] has acknowledged that it has done us wrong, and it is about to continue to pay us for that act, or those acts of discrimination, but there is a lot of work to do.”
Audio from another church session, this one in Mississippi in 2010, shows Burrell coaching parishioners on how to properly answer questions to get settlement checks. Burrell mastered a schtick in which he stops just short of explicitly instructing his listeners to defraud the government, instead relying on gentle ribbing, peer pressure, implied meanings, and the like to steer them to giving the “correct” answers on government forms.
Burrell tells the group that five of eight members of his own family filed for claims in Tennessee, and that the other three members originally thought it was a “scam . . . until the checks hit the table.”