By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
The 1969 Chevy pickup truck that Yuma farmer David Davidson sold to Jesse Van Myers was rusted and in dire need of repair. But that heap of a truck was what Martin Mowbray, an administrator with the Farmers Home Administration, needed to nail Myers.
Myers had been the federal lending authority's supervisor for Yuma County for about a year. He had taken over the office in early 1981--after a promotion from Colorado--and had begun actively lending to Yuma-area farmers while avoiding foreclosures. Myers was also the only African-American employee among the FmHA's 110 Arizona workers.
Mowbray tried to convince Davidson to sign a statement saying Davidson had given the pickup to Myers in exchange for favorable treatment on a loan. If Davidson signed, Myers would be history.
But Davidson told Mowbray the truth--that Myers had seen the truck sitting in the field, unused, and offered Davidson $500 for it.
Mowbray persisted, asking Davidson if he actually hadn't sold it to Myers for $50. Again, Davidson wouldn't budge. He finally signed a statement saying he had sold the truck to Myers for $500.
Mowbray denies it, but Davidson says that as he was leaving, Mowbray said: "I'll get that black-assed nigger if it is the last thing I do."
As it turned out, it wasn't the last thing the FmHA would do to get Jesse Myers.
Far from it.
Over the next decade, bureaucratic tormentors would wage a steady assault on Myers. They would win skirmish after skirmish. They'd call Myers names. They'd discipline him for doing things that white employees routinely got away with. They'd take away his office key, take away his phone, take away his car, take away his pay, take away his authority. They'd even take away his job.
But they would never take away his resolve. Jesse Myers' friends and foes alike agree that he's tenacious. Lesser men would have crumbled under the withering abuse.
It's taken lots of time and patience, but Myers has seen justice prevail. Almost every time the FmHA system has slapped Myers, higher authorities have intervened and ordered remedies. Myers has won full relief, with apologies. He has won thousands of dollars in back pay and legal fees.
The FmHA has even admitted in a federal lawsuit that it discriminated against Myers. Later this month, a federal judge will decide how much the government must pay Myers to correct its abuses.
Even while federal authorities were consistently invalidating the punishment dished out to Myers, his detractors seemed undeterred. His career continued to be a breathtaking progression of personal, professional and racial affronts. Among the latest proposals the FmHA has made to Myers is to transfer him to Alabama, so he can work for an African-American supervisor.
@body:On a Sunday in July, the thermometer outside the kitchen of Jesse Myers' north Phoenix home reads 117 degrees. The smell of chicken soup permeates the house, which he now shares with his father. His mother, who was stricken with cancer when his parents moved in with him, died in June.
Myers, just home from church, removes the coat and vest from the gray, three-piece suit he's wearing. Myers, 42, is stocky and tall. He has a dark mustache. But it is his dark skin, he says, that has caused his problems at Arizona FmHA.
"It's not that I can't get along with white supervisors," he says. "I just can't get along with supervisors that discriminate." All he wants is a fair day's pay for a fair day's work. To that end, Myers has amassed a mountain of documents which tell the story of his career. In what is supposed to be the dining room, he sits at a desk surrounded by boxes upon boxes of files and reports. The ones that don't fit inside he keeps in his garage.
Myers' defense has become his life's work. He feels he's entitled to his bitterness. He's no longer interested in compromising. This perspective colors almost every interaction he has with his co-workers. Whenever there is a confrontation at the office, he always documents it and updates his files.
A native of Texas, Myers worked for the agricultural extension service there and taught agriculture in Florida before landing a job in 1977 as an assistant county supervisor for FmHA in Colorado. At the time, FmHA was still considered the farmers' "lender of last resort." It was where farmers turned when they'd been rejected by every bank. That would change during the Eighties. The FmHA got stingy with small farmers, and many of them were swallowed by corporate farming operations.
In 1981, Myers was promoted to Yuma County supervisor, charged with making and servicing loans in the area. He was one of the last hires of state director Manuel Dominguez, a Jimmy Carter appointee who, with the changing of the guard in Washington, D.C., was on his way out.
Myers quickly earned a reputation among farmers as a hardworking bureaucrat who cared. He often worked seven days a week. His initial performance reviews were outstanding. He increased the number of borrowers without increasing delinquency rates, which were consistently below the state average.
"The farmers thought the world of him," says Rayburn Moore, a member of the Yuma County Board of Supervisors from 1981 to 1988. "FmHA was trying to keep people from getting loans. They turned down a lot of people who were supposed to get them. He got loans for them."
Myers resisted foreclosures. "He was real cooperative in trying to keep people in their homes," says attorney Anne Ronan, who worked in Yuma at the time. "I didn't see that in the rest of Farmers Home Administration."