At 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday, before a crowd of about 150 lawmakers from both parties, African-American activists and Native American leaders, President Barack Obama brought to a close decades of government-sponsored racial injustice — or at least two chapters in a lengthy book.
Standing in the White House's South Court auditorium, the president signed into law H.R. 4783, otherwise known as the Claims Resolution Act. The act provides billions to fund two separate class-action-lawsuit settlements against the U.S. government: Cobell v. Salazar and Pigford v. Glickman.
In the first lawsuit, filed in 1996, Native American claimants alleged that the Interior Department had been conning them out of oil, gas and timber royalties since the late 1800s. In the second, brought by Timothy Pigford in 1997, African-American farmers argued that the Department of Agriculture systematically cheated them out of loans and other public assistance throughout the '80s and '90s. In the end, the Native Americans won a settlement worth $3.4 billion, and the African Americans won nearly $1.2 billion.
President Obama had promised on the campaign trail to resolve the lawsuits, which for years had been stuck in limbo in the courts. (In Pigford, for example, the suit was initially settled in 1999 for $1 billion, but many qualified claimants were unable to file applications on time because of ineffective notices. The new settlement is thus frequently called Pigford II.)
Before signing the bill, the president said that the settlements were about "reaffirming our values on which this nation was founded — principles of fairness and equality and opportunity. … It's about restoring a sense of trust between the American people and the government that plays such an important role in their lives."
John Boyd, president of the Black Farmers Association, has said that the settlement is "bittersweet" because some slighted farmers died while awaiting justice.
From the Obama administration, Attorney General Eric Holder, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, and Deputy Secretary of the Interior David Hayes were present at the bill's signing.
And though the event was dubbed bipartisan, of the 29 members of Congress scheduled to be present at the signing, just three were Republicans. In the days before the Pigford-Cobell bill went to vote in Congress, in fact, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) had called the settlement "pure and complete fraud" and "flat out wrong." Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) likened the payouts to slavery reparations. "That war's been fought," he said on the floor of Congress in November. "That was over a century ago. That debt was paid for in blood, and it was paid for with blood of a lot of Yankees."
The vast majority of Bachmann and King's colleagues disagreed with them, of course, as did Obama, who last night said, "Here in America, we believe that all of us are equal and that each of us deserves the chance to pursue our own version of happiness. It's what led us to become a nation. It's at the heart of who we are as a people.
"And our history is defined by the struggle to fulfill this ideal — to build a more perfect union, to ensure that all of us, regardless of our race or religion, our color or our creed, are afforded the same rights as Americans, and the fair and equal treatment under the law."
It's estimated that the hundreds of thousands of claimants will begin receiving their checks sometime in August 2011.
Cord Jefferson is a staff writer at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.