“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.
Sherrod’s husband, Charles, has been a leader in southwest Georgia’s civil rights movement and has served as a city commissioner. A civil-rights park has been named after him in the Albany town square.
Her mother, Grace Miller, was one of the first black elected officials in Baker County, where she still serves on the school board.
“I know the history,” said Emory Harris, a lifelong Albany resident who served with Charles Sherrod in the Southwest Georgia Project, which fought discrimination and promoted integration. “They mean the world to our group.”
Black and white documentary footage of the Sherrods is shown in the local civil rights institute. In one of the movies, a young Shirley rocks her daughter, smiling faintly, and her husband preaches racial equality.
“I have every reason to hate,” said Shirley Sherrod, who was 17 when her father was killed. “I’ve tried to say to folks if I can put [my father’s killing] where that needs to be and say ‘Let’s work together,’ we can all make change and bring a better life for us.”
In recent months, she has been called on by groups and schools to discuss race relations and been given awards from the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and the Kellogg Foundation.
She has embraced the role. Frequently, when someone stops her, saying: “Ma’am you look so familiar. Don’t I know you from somewhere?,” she gives them her quick bio: “I’m the lady USDA fired.”
She calls the episode “my ordeal” and has some regret about losing her position as the agency’s rural development director in Georgia, where she oversaw more than $1.2 billion in loans, loan guarantees and programs.
After Vilsack apologized, she told him about the gains she had made in getting more federal farm money to poor, rural people. When she flew to Washington to decline Vilsack’s job offer, she pressed the initiative again, asking him to put a special focus on the poorest areas.
Vilsack, who has instituted a zero-tolerance policy for discrimination, is often asked about Sherrod and has recently seemed exasperated by the subject. “It’s far more extensive than just one person,” Vilsack said in an interview. “We are involved in a cultural transformation at USDA, given our history.”
That history includes large discrimination lawsuits filed in the late 1990s and won by black, Hispanic and Native American farmers. The Sherrods and a 6,000-acre farming cooperative they belonged to were part of the lawsuit by black farmers and ultimately awarded a $12.8 million claim. They proved they had been denied loans while white farmers had received them.
Sherrod has continued to draw attention to discrimination at USDA — a federal department known by many minority farmers as “the Last Plantation” — by describing the inequality minority farmers faced there in her speeches.
Recently, she hosted NAACP President Benjamin Jealous in the rural outskirts of Albany to discuss the need for more investment. Last year, in the middle of the Sherrod-USDA controversy, Jealous rebuked her actions as “shameful.” Then he too apologized. Since then, he’s been back to Albany twice, looking for ways to support her work.
“She’s become an important thought partner of mine in the last year,” Jealous said.
Sherrod took Jealous and his colleagues from the NAACP in a church van around Baker County — which was known as bad Baker County during the civil rights movement because of the rabid racism.
“The man who murdered my father would sit out here on this rock fence with his gun,” Sherrod said, pointing to the old brick courthouse in the small town of Newton.
She took them to a cooperative for rural black women that she helped organize, where the women shell pecans and make candy, and to an old school that has been converted into a community center and commercial kitchen for local residents.
“She was always there for the farmers,” said Cornelius Key, a peanut and soybean farmer who met the group. “She helped us set up markets with Whole Foods and other stores.”
As the tour neared its end, Sherrod took Jealous and the others past a 1,664-acre farm on the edge of Albany called Cypress Pond. “It’s just beautiful,” she said. Her family and the others who invested in the New Communities cooperative that sued the federal government have placed a bid on the land and want to turn it into a modern version of their old project.
“Today, this land will belong to black people, white people, poor people,” Sherrod said. “Anyone who is a part of us. It belongs to us.”