A month ago, I took NAACP President Benjamin Jealous to task for mishandling the controversy over Shirley Sherrod. He deserved everything I said about him at the time. Since he dropped the ball on the controversy created by a right-wing blogger, Jealous and the NAACP have done a masterful job of redemption and damage control. After kicking Jealous in the butt for messing up, it is only fair to give him a pat on the back now that he has made amends.
By his own admission, Jealous blew it by criticizing the former Department of Agriculture employee based on a misleading 2-minute excerpt of a 43-minute speech. As you recall, Andrew Breitbart, a Right-wing provocateur, posted an excerpt on his blog with the following quote from Sherrod:
“…You know, for the first time I was faced with having to help a White farmer save his farm. He took a long time talking, but he was trying to show me he was superior. I knew what he was doing but he had to come to me for help. What he didn’t know, while he was taking all that time trying to show me he was superior to me, was I was trying to decide just how much help I was going to give him.”
The speech – given 24 years ago, not recently as the blogger had advertised – was a powerful example of moving past one’s personal bias.
The part deliberately left out by Andrew Breitbart, Sherrod said, “…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.”
Without hearing the full speech, the Department of Agriculture quickly demanded and received Sherrod’s resignation. And without consulting the Douglas, Georgia NAACP chapter president who had invited Sherrod to speak, Jealous said: “Her actions were shameful. While she went on to explain in the story that she ultimately realized her mistake, as well as the common predicament of working people of all races, she gave no indication she had attempted to right the wrong she had done to this man.”
After reviewing the full tape, Jealous realized he had to right a wrong.
As I note in media training sessions with clients, Rule #1 of crisis management is: Fully acknowledge the mistake. And Jealous did that, saying in a statement: “With regard to the initial media coverage of the resignation of USDA Official Shirley Sherrod, we have come to the conclusion we were snookered by Fox News and Tea Party Activist Andrew Breitbart into believing she had harmed white farmers because of racial bias.”
Jealous and Board Chair Roslyn Brock apologized to Sherrod and posted the full video on the NAACP’s website. But righting the wrong against Sherrod didn’t stop there.
According to an NAACP press release issued August 19, “Recently President Jealous, Georgia State Conference President Edward DuBose, Interim Legal Counsel Judge Laura Blackburne and Mrs. Sherrod met for more than four hours discussing important issues and traveling rural Georgia to visit local cooperatives she has supported.”
In a show of public unity, Jealous and Sherrod delivered a joint address at the annual meeting of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund on August 21 in Epes, Ala.
Although pained by the NAACP’s initial statement about her speech, Sherrod, working with top NAACP officials, took the high road, determined that the incident would not create a gulf between her and the nation’s oldest civil rights organization.
In a letter to NAACP members, she said: “Not long ago, I sat here in my living room in Albany, Georgia for an afternoon of deep conversation with NAACP President Benjamin Jealous,” she recounted. “As he has done in public, Ben movingly apologized for the fact that the NAACP was initially hoodwinked by Breitbart and Fox into supporting my removal. I told him what I want to tell you.
“That’s behind us, and the last thing I want to see happen is for my situation to weaken support for the NAACP. Too many people confronted by racism and poverty count on the NAACP to be there for them, especially those in rural areas who often have nowhere else to turn.”
She added, “The NAACP confronts the virulent racism that my family and so many other families have had to endure. But it is also leading the way in breaking down the structural barriers that block so many people’s path out of poverty…Thank you for all you are doing to challenge poverty and racism. I look forward to working and struggling right by your side.”
After such a contentious beginning, one could not ask for a better ending.
George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine and the NNPA News Service, is a keynote speaker, moderator, and media coach. He can be reached through his Web site, www.georgecurry.com You can also follow him at www.twitter.com/currygeorge.
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