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 NAACP. 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. And 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, written with Catherine Whitney, fleshes out the story she sketched in her NAACP speech. She is herself the product of a farm family, born and raised in the fiercely segregated world of southern Georgia in 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 could have shattered her family. Instead it pushed them 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 that they hoped would be a model for democratic economic development in black communities. When that venture collapsed, because of 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.” By the time the Obama administration came calling, Sherrod had spent two decades working on behalf of the rural poor, black and white.
None of that mattered to Breitbart, who latched onto Sherrod’s speech not to attack her personally — by all accounts he had no clue who she was — but rather to retaliate against liberal criticism of the tea party’s racial dynamics. Thus was she sucked into the mire of Washington politics, her reputation, her livelihood, her career all shattered by a few minutes of manipulation.
But Sherrod refused to remain a victim. The morning after her firing she went on CNN to deny that she’d discriminated against the farmer she’d mentioned in her speech. So did the farmer, Roger Spooner, who said that in fact she’d saved his land. With that, Sherrod’s response rocketed around the media. Rachel Maddow picked it up, as did The Washington Post, the New York Times, “Good Morning America,” “Today,” even “The View.” The president of the NAACP apologized for his rush to judgment. President Obama called to express his regrets. And the secretary of agriculture offered Sherrod a new, more powerful position, which she refused. It was time, she said, to move on.
That she has done. Last year the Sherrods bought an abandoned plantation close to where their cooperative farm had been. They plan to turn it into a conference center for racial reconciliation, dedicated to the ideals that have shaped their lives. It’s a noble vision, a stirring way to end a sorry episode. But it also obscures a profoundly troubling aspect of Sherrod’s story.
Breitbart’s cynical maneuver, and the administration’s panicked response, had driven her out of government service. Maybe in the grand scheme of things, her position wasn’t all that important. But the fact that she was in it — a woman raised in the Georgia countryside, steeped in the struggle for racial justice, deeply committed to the plight of the poor — mattered. It also matters that she’s gone: another sign of change, of hope, destroyed by the brutal spectacle we call politics.
teaches American history at Ohio State University. He is the author of “Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights and Murder in the Jazz Age,” which won the National Book Award for nonfiction in 2004.