“I often wonder, ‘Why me?’ ” Sherrod said, piloting her black Lexus through the streets of Albany on a recent afternoon. “To be thrust in the public eye is not what I wanted, but I’ve always had to do what I had to do.”
Sherrod was rudely ousted by USDA officials in July after blogger Andrew Breitbart — back in the news recently for his role in Rep. Anthony Weiner’s lewd-texting scandal — released excerpts of a Sherrod speech. The video, which had been edited, made it appear that she did not help a white farmer as much as she could have, through counseling and other assistance, to save his failing farm.
Department of Agriculture officials fired her instantly. A day later, it became clear that Sherrod was actually talking about the importance of overcoming prejudice. USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack publicly apologized and offered her another job, which she declined. President Obama called her to express his regret and try to patch over the mess.
But the mess has not been patched over. Sherrod’s story is regularly invoked — by civil rights groups, academics and members of the Congressional Black Caucus — as proof of the challenge of discussing race honestly in the Obama era.
“Is she a gadfly to the Obama administration? I don’t know her motivations, but the reality of it is that they screwed up,” said Andra Gillespie, an Emory University professor who studies politics and race. “They apologized, but the decision to fire her is the kind of knee-jerk reaction that people get concerned about with de-racialized candidates, such as Obama. The administration overacted in the Shirley Sherrod case to prove that they don’t always side with the minorities, but they were wrong.”
USDA officials now say they are hoping Sherrod will come back as a consultant to help them address inequities facing black farmers. But the administration has once again upset her, offering a $35,000 consulting contract. The figure, she said, is a “slap in the face,” given the amount of work the job would require.
Sherrod, a 63-year-old grandmother, says she has not chosen the role of political gadfly. But her personal history prepared her for it, friends and associates said.
Her father, Hoise Miller, was killed in 1965 by a white man in a cattle dispute in Baker County, Ga., according to a wrongful-death lawsuit filed by her family and famed civil rights attorney C.B. King. The shooter was never indicted.