USDA flap leads to veer in career path
Sherrod victim of doctored video
In the summer of 2009 the U.S. Department of Agriculture named Shirley Sherrod its director of rural development for the state of Georgia. It was a routine appointment, one of thousands the Obama administration made that year, except for two things. Never before had an African-American held the position. And Sherrod had spent 40 years working on behalf of Georgia’s rural poor, sometimes in opposition to the very programs she would be running. That made her selection an audacious act, a sign – small as it was – of change.
Thirteen months later she was very abruptly, very publicly fired.
The triggering event was a video posted by the late conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart, featuring a tiny fraction of a speech Sherrod had recently given to a local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The clip seemed to show her bragging about having turned away a white farmer who’d come to her for help, a blatant case of reverse discrimination. Within a few hours the story was all over Fox News. In response, the NAACP denounced her actions as “shameful.” And the White House insisted that she tender her resignation.
Only later did anyone bother to listen to the rest of Sherrod’s speech. It turned out that the incident she’d described had taken place not during her tenure with the USDA but 23 years earlier, when she worked for a nonprofit organization. It was true that when the white farmer first came to her, she’d tried to pass his problem off to a white lawyer, thinking that “his own kind would take care of him.” When that didn’t work, though, she got him the help he needed. “Well,” she’d explained in a segment Breitbart had left on the cutting-room floor, “working with him made me see that it’s really about those who have versus those who don’t, you know. And they could be black; they could be white; they could be Hispanic. . . . It made me realize then that I needed to work to help poor people – those who don’t have access the way others have.”
The most powerful portion of Sherrod’s new memoir, The Courage to Hope, written with Catherine Whitney, fleshes out the story she sketched in her NAACP speech. She was herself the product of a farm family, born and raised in the fiercely segregated world of southern Georgia in what turned out to be the dying days of Jim Crow. Her experience with the system’s terrible power was deeply personal: In 1965, when she was 17, her father was murdered by a neighbor who, because he was white, was never held accountable for his crime. The tragedy pushed her family into activism. The summer after her father’s death, her mother and sisters joined the first mass marches in their county; that autumn they played a major role in desegregating the local schools.
It was through their activism that Shirley met Charles Sherrod, who had come to Georgia four years earlier as a field secretary for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, the vanguard organization of the civil rights revolution. When they married in 1966, Shirley Sherrod married the movement, too.
Over the decades her commitments expanded. For 17 years, from 1968 to 1985, the Sherrods ran a cooperative farm they hoped would serve as a model for democratic economic development in black communities. When that venture collapsed, thanks to the USDA’s refusal to give the couple a desperately needed loan, Shirley took a position with a nonprofit that helped African-Americans hold on to their land. But white farmers started showing up at her office, too. Through those encounters, she says, “I (began) to see that the greatest struggle for farmers was poverty, and it didn’t matter what color your skin was.”