Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman's "listening session" on the USDA's internal and external civil rights problems took a dramatic turn Wednesday when a group of black farmers carried a banner with a racist message around the Jefferson Auditorium so photographers and news cameras could get a picture with Glickman, other high-ranking USDA officials and the department's civil rights action team sitting in front of it.
Robert Williams, a black farmer from Abilene, Texas, said the banner had been hung at his farm.
Williams did not link the banner directly to the USDA's civil rights problems, but said it was indicative of the problems faced by black farmers. Williams is, however, involved in legal proceedings against the USDA on civil rights issues.
At the same time the banner was being displayed, James Myart, a San Antonio-based attorney for the National Black Farmers Association including Williams, refused to relinquish the microphone after his allotted five minutes and held the stage for at least half an hour, giving several of his clients a chance to speak.
Myart listed the names of several high-ranking Agriculture Department officials and described them as racist.
Glickman responded only briefly to Myart, and the session continued with other USDA clients who had signed up to give their views. But in a meeting with reporters, Glickman said improving civil rights "is going to be my legacy in this place," adding, "We're going to shape this place up, period."
The sessions are part of a series of public meetings Glickman and other USDA officials have held since black farmers marched on the White House Dec. 12, claiming the USDA has not been providing proper service to black farmers, and has been responsible for black farmers' losing their land or leaving their farms.
Hundreds of Agriculture Department employees showed up at a Wednesday morning session on employee civil rights problems.
One employee charged that "civil rights is buried in the back of the building" and said Glickman should "move EEO physically to the highest levels of the department."
Glickman has appointed Pearlie Reed, an African American who is deputy chief of the Natural Resources Conservation Service, to head a civil rights action team that is supposed to make recommendations for changes by mid-February.