USDA's Civil Rights Chief to Leave

By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 20, 2006

In the end, it was the commute that got to Vernon Parker, the embattled civil rights director at the Department of Agriculture.

He was flying home to Paradise Valley, Ariz., every week, piling up debt on credit cards to support his wife, Lisa, in her battle with breast cancer and to give his son Ian, 12, a rare bear hug at the airport.

"It's hard to have a commuter family," he said.

The job was no joy either. So in December, Parker resigned and will leave the post at the beginning of next month.

Parker, 47, has his share of supporters who said he did an outstanding job in fighting bigotry at an agency, dubbed "the last plantation" by critics, that was found in a landmark court case to have victimized farmers.

"Vernon did a commendable job in the short time he was there," said Clinton Bristow Jr., president of Alcorn State University, a 1,700-acre Mississippi agriculture and mechanical school that is so remote it grows its own food.

"Vernon has opened doors. . . . It has led to outcomes, grant opportunities for our universities. We were also able to get increased appropriations in programs that help small farmers," Bristow said.

Parker also has detractors, especially among black farmers, who say he lacked the political backbone to help them in their fight against what many black farmer organizations call historic and ongoing discrimination at USDA.

"I actually lobbied for that office," John Boyd, president of the National Association of Black Farmers, said of the civil rights office. "I really didn't see a whole lot of progress. I think he came in underrating the position. I didn't think he saw what he could do and what he couldn't do with that office."

As he leaves, one thing Parker cannot say. He cannot say that he was not forewarned during his Senate confirmation hearing that he was taking a hot seat.

The Republican was nominated to be the first-ever USDA civil rights director by President Bush in 2003, shortly after black farmers seized a USDA regional office in Brownsville, Tenn., to protest how slowly their loans were processed compared with white farmers'.

At least once a year during Parker's tenure, farmer pickets called for the ouster of Secretary Ann M. Veneman. She left last year for unrelated reasons.

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