USDA official and civil rights activist Shirley Sherrod triumphs once again over injustice
by Arty Mangan
I first met Shirley Sherrod in the late nineties at a meeting in Albany, Georgia where more than 1000 black farmers had come to hear attorney JL Chestnut give them an update on the black farmer’s class action suit (Pigford vs. Glickman).
The USDA, under the Reagan administration, had closed down their Civil Rights Division, but gave no public notice; so when black farmers, who applied for loans regularly experienced institutional racism at the local USDA offices, filed discrimination claims, those claims were stored unopened until the Clinton administration was made aware and acknowledged that discrimination had indeed occurred. That opened the door to what became the largest civil rights judgment in the history of the US, about 1 billion dollars paid out so far to black farmers.
I was at the meeting because I was involved in a Bioneers’ farming project collaborating with the Federation of Southern Cooperatives (FSC). Shirley was among the dedicated folks working for the Federation, many of whom are “old guard” civil rights activists who grew up with overt and often violent racism and became community civil rights leaders in The Sixties.
As a 17 year-old growing up in Georgia, Shirley Sherrod experienced the worst kind of racial violence when her father was killed over a minor dispute with a white farmer, a reputed Klansman. Even though there were three witnesses, the grand jury in Baker County, GA did not indict the murderer. In those days (1965) in Baker County white men were never even brought to trial for killing a black man. Just months after her father’s death, three members of the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross on the lawn of her home; inside the home was her family including her newborn brother who would never see his father.
On the night of her father’s death, Shirley prayed for guidance when she realized that this tragedy could lead her to “live a life of hate.” Guidance came in the form of a choice: she could give up her dream of moving north (where she thought racism didn’t exist) and stay in the South and dedicate her life to change, which she did.
This is the story of transformation that Shirley Sherrod told at the NAACP meeting last March. This is the context, in which she testified to another personal epiphany, when in 1986, Roger Spooner, whose farm was about to be foreclosed, asked Shirley for help. Mr. Spooner was the first white farmer to approach Shirley for assistance.
“I was trying to decide how much help I was going to give him. I was struggling with the fact that so many black people had lost their farmland and I was faced with having to help a white farmer, so I didn’t give him the full force of what I could do … [but] I did enough.”
The extreme Right Wing pulled that comment out of a 47-minute speech, ran it up the flagpole and howled racism so loudly that not only did the Obama administration initially cave in without hearing the full story, but incomprehensibly so did the NAACP, resulting in her forced resignation from the USDA.
In her NAACP talk, Shirley went on to explain that a white lawyer that she introduced to the impoverished Spooners served them poorly while mounting up fees. So Shirley continued to work with the Spooners and was able to help them save their farm.
In an interview with Celeste Headlee of www.thetakeaway.org, Sherrod said, “The whole point of telling the story, that working with this farmer helped me to see that I needed to move beyond white versus black and to see that the issue was more about poor people—those who don’t have access versus those who do.”
In a CNN interview Roger Spooner, said that Sherrod had “stuck with us” back in 1986 and “we still got the farm.” Asked whether he thought Sherrod was a racist, Spooner responded emphatically, “No way in the world.”
My work with black farmers has made me realize that black people are a lot more honest and real about racism then most white folk care to be and the reason is simple- they live with it nearly every day and most white folks are blind to their own racial privilege.
The extreme Right’s tactic of destroying a person’s character by attacking their strength almost worked again. Fortunately the Obama administration has come to the truth, however their initial reflexive action of allowing toxic, divisive forces to punish good people and dictate the rules of the game was extremely disappointing and strategically risky.
The fact that Shirley Sherrod was appointed to USDA–the first black person to hold that position in Georgia–was a sign of real change.
Sherrod, by her by merit and dedication, rose to a position to help even more people and to fulfill the vow that she made on the night her father was murdered.
FSC executive director Ralph Paige said, “We need to listen to grassroots leadership.” Shirley Sherrod, who once said, “I get joy from helping others” is one of those grassroots leaders we need to listen to.
By now everyone knows politics is a rough and dirty business, and no doubt Shirley Sherrod can handle herself as she is aptly proving. After all, as a teenage girl, she lived a nightmare and came out whole – not just as an individual, but as a community leader.
So let me add my apology to the growing list, which now includes Barack Obama. I’m sorry, Shirley, that it takes this kind of travesty for your real and inspiring story to be told.