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Despite adversity, Shirley Sherrod has history of civil service

By Krissah Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 22, 2010; A08

Shirley Sherrod is a woman who has been failed by the system again and again.

She was a 17-year-old high school senior when a white man shot her father, Hosie Miller, in the back. A grand jury refused to bring murder charges.

Twenty years later, she and her husband, Charles, watched the 6,000-acre farming cooperative they founded in Lee County, Ga., suffocate under the weight of systematic discrimination by federal officials.

This week she endured becoming a caricature on cable news as a video clip from a speech she gave in March spun for 24 hours. Sherrod was labeled a racist black woman, ousted from her job with the Agriculture Department and condemned by the NAACP, whose members she had joined in the struggle for racial equality.

As Sherrod, 62, saw it all unfold from her home in Albany, Ga., she called upon the same grit that has always seemed to carry her. On Wednesday, she traveled to Atlanta and became an instant television star -- confidently having her say on CNN from morning to night.

She smiled slightly as she watched White House press secretary Robert Gibbs apologize to her. Then she said casually that she would need a few days to think about whether to return to the USDA. Its secretary, Tom Vilsack, had offered her an unspecified role at the department working on civil rights issues.

After watching her life whipsawed, she defended herself and let the story unfold.

In a part of that much-discussed speech not shown on television, Sherrod described herself as a farm girl and recounted how, after her father's death, she took hold of the rural sensibility preached by Booker T. Washington -- that you can use the land to lift yourself up. Until that time, she was sure that she would leave the South.

"Picking cotton, picking cucumbers, shaking peanuts, doing all that work on the farm. It'll make you want to get an education more than anything," she told NAACP members gathered for a banquet in Douglas, Ga. "The discrimination that we had to endure made you just want to leave."

She stayed and joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1965, committed to integration and securing voting rights for blacks. Charles Sherrod, a minister, became the committee's field director in southwest Georgia, according to history books and friends of the Sherrods.

Julian Bond, a civil rights leader and former NAACP chairman, said Charles was "good, brave and courageous," going into rural counties outside of Albany. Friends say Shirley was right there with him.

Once SNCC began to devolve, she became a welfare rights activist and began working on community projects, including New Communities -- a cooperative that grew soybeans, corn, cotton and fruit. For 15 years, it was the largest black-owned farming organization in the country.

The dream turned into a battle for loans with USDA, said Sherrod's lawyer, Rose Saunders. The government denied the Sherrods, and they lost the land.

"It was sad, but by the time it happened, it was sort of inevitable," said Joseph Pfister, a friend of the Sherrods and a civil rights activist.

(It was 14 years before the U.S. government would right that wrong, settling with them for $13 million. Most of the money went to a nonprofit intended to buy back the land, Saunders said. The Sherrods were awarded $330,000 for pain and suffering.)

Not two years after the government foreclosed, Sherrod joined the Southern Cooperative/Land Assistance Fund. It was there that she encountered Roger Spooner, a white farmer who had come to the cooperative for help, said Jerry Pennick, director of the fund.

It is Spooner whom Sherrod was talking about when she related the story that became bait for conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart.

Breitbart's false proposition -- that Sherrod had denied Spooner help -- was revealed when the farmer appeared on CNN to back her. "I tell you what, I never was treated no better than Shirley," Spooner said as his wife, Eloise, nodded in agreement.

Her friends back home said she made her point with flair. "Shirley has shown that you don't have to be afraid. All you have to do is be right," Pennick said.

Research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.

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