“The news of Mr. Breitbart’s death came as a surprise to me when I was informed of it this morning. My prayers go out to Mr. Breitbart’s family as they cope during this very difficult time.”
She had no further comment, and, having spent time with Sherrod, I am not surprised that she would refrain from speaking ill of Breitbart in death — no matter how she felt about the impact he had on her life.
Last summer, I flew to southwest Georgia to spend the day with Sherrod, who was fired in 2010 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture after Breitbart accused her publicly of discriminating against a white farmer as an agency official in Georgia. It had been almost a year since Sherrod made headlines defending herself against the accusations, which were later proven false.
When I met her then, she was still angry with Breitbart, who in what he called an effort to find wrongdoing within the NAACP, had thrown her into a national racial imbroglio that reached the White House.
Breitbart posted a video he received from an anonymous source that showed Sherrod speaking at an NAACP civil rights dinner. There she told of the hesitation she had felt decades earlier when a white farmer came to her for help while she was working for a cooperative intended to aid black farmers who were losing their land at a fast rate.
The video, which did not include Sherrod’s remarks in full, made it appear that she did not help the white farmer as much as she could have, through counseling and other assistance, to save his failing farm. Sherrod became an instant lighting rod — painted as a racist African American bureaucrat. The incident served as an example of Breitbart’s ability to polarize.
After Breitbart published the video, USDA officials instantly fired Sherrod. A day later, it became clear that during her presentation 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.
“I often wonder, ‘Why me?’” she told me when I interviewed her last year. “To be thrust in the public eye is not what I wanted, but I’ve always had to do what I had to do.”
She described Breitbart’s actions as having turned her life upside down. He later said that Sherrod was not his target.
But the Georgia grandmother had no problem fighting back. After Vilsack fired her, he offered her a consulting contract and elicited her opinions on how to deal with discrimination within the department.
Sherrod also sued Breitbart for defamation. It is still working its way through the judicial system.
Sherrod’s lawyer did not return a call asking about the fate of her case in the face of Breitbart’s sudden death.
In the end, Sherrod has used the incident and the attention it brought to her advantage, raising money for causes she believes in — including a a cooperative of Southern women who make pecan candies. These days, she is spending her time building and promoting a large cooperative ranch outside of Albany that she and her husband have said would be farmland for poor Georgia farmers, black and white.