Shirley Sherrod is a survivor. After the late conservative media personality Andrew Breitbart released a video in July 2010 of what appeared to be Sherrod, then Georgia State Director of Rural Development, explaining to the NAACP a racist approach she takes to her job, she publicly fell from grace.
She was forced to resign and endured a media firestorm until it was revealed just hours after the video’s release that Breitbart had manipulated the footage, which showed Sherrod discussing how she helped a white farmer receive aid for his land.
Now, two years after the Breitbart dust-up, Sherrod, a sought-after public speaker, is telling her side of the story in her new memoir, “The Courage to Hope: How I Stood Up to the Politics of Fear” (Atria Books, 2012).
It details her childhood in rural Georgia, how the death of her father at the hands of a white farmer fostered her commitment to fight for civil rights and what her 2010 speech to the NAACP really entailed.
She recently spoke with The Root DC about her new projects, her passion for land and whether her vote in November will be for President Obama.
In addition to public speaking, what else have you been doing since your departure from the USDA?
One of the projects — the Southwest Georgia Project, an organization I helped to start years ago — had actually gotten through the USDA to work with primarily female farmers, trying to get more women involved in agriculture. I encouraged them to look at marketing vegetables to local school systems, and helping them to do that. I’ve been volunteering my time for over a year with them. I have been working on a racial healing project that we have in Darden County, in Wilcox County and Clay County. I think I seem to be working more now than when I was at Rural Development. It’s just so much to be done, and I feel excited with where we’re trying to go with some of this work.
After the Andrew Breitbart video was released, it appears that your employers didn’t initially listen to your side of the story. How did you try to handle the situation? Were you shocked to see how quickly things unfolded?
I kept pleading — once I was aware that the tape was out there. In fact, I was the one who notified the department about it, because I had received an e-mail message from someone saying I should be ashamed of myself, working for the government and refusing to help a white farmer. I notified the government five days before the July 19 event. I kept pleading with them, saying “Please listen to the tape, and if you listen to the tape you’ll see that not only did I help the white farmer 24 years ago, but I saved his farm, and we became good friends.” But I could not get anyone to listen to me.
It didn’t take long for them to put me on administrative leave, but that didn’t last long. It probably lasted only about an hour before I was being told that the White House wanted me to resign. Not much longer after that, I was on that long drive from West Point, Ga. to Athens, and about 30 miles before arriving in Athens I was asked to pull to the side of the road to use my BlackBerry to submit my letter of resignation. In each call, I kept saying ‘Listen to the tape.’ I was trying to plead my case. I spent my life working against racism. I’m certainly not a racist, and I’ve helped lots of white farmers. The white farmer I talked about in my speech from 24 years ago was actually the first one, but I helped so many more after that.
Having lived through Jim Crow and having fought for civil rights so many years ago, did you think that racism would be an issue you’d still be speaking about?
I certainly did not. I thought we would really get beyond this years ago, as we started having more gains during the civil rights movement. I certainly thought we would be beyond this point. It seems we go forward, and we move back. We go forward, and we move back. We dealt with the issues of Jim Crow and segregation, but we didn’t deal with the issue of racism, and I don’t know how we can ever do that.
Would you ever consider working with the USDA or the federal government again?
I’ll be 65 in November, and no, I think that’s about enough! Just let me continue working from the community level as I’ve done all of my life.
What was it that spurred your interest in rural development?
Initially [my cause was] fighting for the right to vote, the right to eat, sleep or live where we needed to. But there were many more issues with economic development, and when you’re working with people in the rural areas, farming is their life, so you naturally start dealing with some of the issues that farmers are faced with. One thing just naturally led to another as I learned more about how the USDA operated. I knew from the standpoint of when my father [who was a farmer] was trying to get a loan or when we were attempting to deal with the agency, but racism is entrenched in the USDA. And these people can make or break a farmer, or someone else trying to access the program through the agency. One person during those years — a county supervisor — could decide he’s going to put a black farmer out of business, and he knew what he had to do to do that, and even if a farmer appealed decisions, those appeals were heard by his buddies in another district.
Who do you feel can best advocate for farmers and for the needs of rural development today?
I think we all have to do it. I think people in the city have to realize their connection to the rural area, for one thing. But there are those of us out there who have spent years working and networking with other groups. For instance, next month Farm Aid is taking place in Pennsylvania. Even though I worked in SW Georgia or in the South, and initially worked primarily with African-American farmers, I had that connection with other farm advocates, both white, Hispanic, Native American, around the country.
Do you regret staying in Georgia?
No, no I don’t. In fact, I realize now it was the place for me to be. I didn’t feel that way, working out in the cotton fields and peanut fields as I was growing up. I wanted to get away from that. I wanted to get away from the farm, and I wanted to get away from Baker County because of the sheriff, and the conditions we lived under there. I realized staying to fight to make it better was part of what I needed to do, and I just loved the people.
Are you planning to support President Obama in November?
Oh, yes. I tell people everywhere I go ‘He is my president!’ I said that shortly after [I had to resign]. My support has always been there for him. Did he make the right decision in my situation? No, he didn’t. But I hope they have learned a lot from how they dealt with me. But my support has been there, and it is there.
Sherrod will discuss her book at Busboys and Poets, located at 2021 14th St Northwest, Thursday, Sept. 20, at 6 p.m.
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