By Hazel Trice Edney, NNPA Editor-in-Chief –
WASHINGTON (NNPA) – Former Department of Agriculture Rural Development Director Shirley Sherrod of South West Georgia, still reeling from the blow of an assault on her job, character and civil rights record last week, told the Black Press of America that she hopes the travesty of justice that happened to her will now help America move forward with racial healing.
She and her husband, the Rev. Charles Sherrod, a leading civil rights organizer, who actually marched and organized alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. from 1961 and was arrested five times during the civil rights movement, spoke in separate phone interviews with the NNPA News Service. The Sherrods, who reside in Albany, Ga., reflected on the pains of the past as well as the meaning of the recent attack and how they have been long prepared for it. That includes Mrs. Sherrod having suffered the shooting death of her father at the hands of a Klansman more than 40 years ago.
The highly respected civil rights and racial justice work of this couple underscored the irony last week as she was forced to resign by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack because of a distorted and edited videotaped version of a March 2010 speech to NAACP in which she was made to appear as if she had discriminated against a White farmer.
In a nutshell, Obama appointee Secretary Vilsack fired her without first hearing the context of the remarks. The videotaped remarks out of context were also condemned by the NAACP, whose president, Ben Jealous, later said in a statement of apology that they were “snookered by Fox News and Tea Party Activist Andrew Breitbart”, the blogger who released the edited video out of context.
But, as the truth was revealed by the release of the full video, Sherrod not only received public apologies from Vilsack and an offer of employment back at Agriculture - an offer that she was still considering at NNPA deadline this week - but she also received a phone call from President Obama himself who she said expressed heartfelt regrets.
The heroes in the midst of the storm of criticism were the White farmer himself, 88-year-old Roger Spooner, and his wife Eloise, who appeared live on CNN. They rebuked all who had condemned Sherrod.
“I couldn’t believe it. She was unbelievably helpful in every way. She saved our farm,” he said. “This all here is a bunch of hogwash in my opinion. She was as nice to us as anyone could have been. As far as racism and all, that’s just ridiculous.”
In interviews, this week, both the Rev. and Mrs. Sherrod of Albany, Ga., give passionate reflections on last week’s painful controversy. They discuss their deeply personal wounds and where they hope America will go from here.
Interview with Mrs. Shirley Sherrod:
NNPA: How have you gotten through this? It must have been so painful knowing your family’s history and background and your husband’s history and background in civil rights.
Shirley Sherrod: It’s been the prayers of people around this country and my prayers and my family’s prayers that helped me to deal with this. But, you have to know that when you’re in the struggle, you deal with these bumps in the road. I’ve had to deal with so many difficult things through my life that it’s hard to even look at this as a crisis because I’ve had to deal with some for years.
NNPA: So, are you saying that in the context of all that you’ve had to deal with, that this is like a bump in the road?
Shirley Sherrod: Well, it’s been a big bump. But, I’ve had to deal with stuff for years…But, you have to do what you’ve got to do and don’t let it get you unfocused and just continue working.
NNPA: Is there anything new and different that the Obama Administration can do going forward pertaining to civil rights or Black people that you think was revealed during your situation?
Shirley Sherrod: Well, I think they’ve got to be willing to discuss the issues. I think they shouldn’t be afraid to discuss the issues because I’m a believer that if we can try to talk through things, we can probably get to a point where we can find some common ground to work from. But, if you continue to brush it under the rug and think the problem is over, it doesn’t go away and we saw that [last] week. And I think that’s what has happened.
NNPA: Is that something that you think the White House should initiate - a discussion or forum on race?
Shirley Sherrod: Well, right now I can’t say that’s where it needs to come from, but they certainly need to play a role.
NNPA: Were you disappointed at the NAACP?
Shirley Sherrod: Yes, ma’am. Yes, ma’am. You know, yes I was. To be the brunt of their criticism - of all agencies - when you look at my work and it was the NAACP, oh my goodness. I’ve put in more years working, probably than, I don’t know how old Ben Jealous is…
Shirley Sherrod: Hey, I’ve worked more years than his age. I’ve been working 45 years.
NNPA: Of course they apologized, but even with all the apologies, it’s like where do we go from here as it pertains to race in America?
Shirley Sherrod: We have to discuss it. We have to make some attempt to deal with it. We can’t not deal with it. What are we leaving for our children who come along behind us? Are we setting up another hundred years of the same thing?
NNPA: Are you hurt that Andrew Breitbart has not apologized to you?
Shirley Sherrod: I probably don’t need to, you know. An apology from him, what will it mean? If he said it right now, I don’t think he would mean it. I think he would just be saying it because of pressure from people.
NNPA: You said on CNN that you thought that he would want to see all Black people back in slavery. In other words, you implied that you felt that he was a racist.
Shirley Sherrod: I know he is. It takes a racist to be able to do what he’s doing.
NNPA: When do you plan to decide where you go from here? Have you gotten any book offers? We saw you on The View. You are really out there.
Shirley Sherrod: I was telling my sister this morning that I guess everything I’ve done up to now prepared me for this. But, I wasn’t scared. I have four sisters. I told her it was just like sitting down talking to you all.
NNPA: So, how do you see the rest of your life? How has this impacted your life?
Shirley Sherrod: Well it has certainly changed because down here, people who know my work and my husband and my family, I go to the grocery store and I spend a little more time because I run into people I know and talk to. But, now that’s changed to everywhere I go. (Laughter). I’m here getting my car washed and the lady here, she is White. She just said, ‘I love you’.
NNPA: And we saw your reunion with the Spooners and that was so touching. They seem to be such a wonderful people. Do you plan to write a book about your life? Shirley Sherrod: Yes, they are. People have been telling me, who have known me for years, you need to write a book. And my standard answer has been, I’m working so hard that I don’t have the time that it takes to write a book. But, I’ve had text messages and I even got a FedEx yesterday from someone offering to write the book, the story. And I think I do need to do that. Yes.
NNPA: Is there anything that you would want to say that I didn’t ask about this moment to Black America moving forward?
Shirley Sherrod: I’ve never wanted the limelight. That’s just not me. But, if the things that have happened to me this week really help move us; those of us who live in this country to a better place where we can try to deal with the racial issues, the issues of love and togetherness; then I feel that everything that I’ve been through is worth it.
Interview with Rev. Charles Sherrod Sr.
NNPA: How have you handled what you and your wife have gone through the past week, given your history?
Charles Sherrod: Well, it’s not something new to have been misinterpreted or lied on by the press. We’ve gone through that for 50 years, so that was no surprise that a straight line truth is turned into a crooked lie. That’s a part of our training in the civil rights movement.
NNPA: But, did it surprise you at all in 2010?
Charles Sherrod: It surprised me because the nature of the beast is still the same as it was in 1961. It is still racists who control our economy and who control much of the cultural development in our country. And we know that they are the enemy in our fight. We fight with love, but we’re not a bunch of simpletons. We have been taught by this monster, whipped in place, told to stay in our place, but we’ve refused to do so. So, when you refuse to do so, you stand in danger of the wrath of the beast.
NNPA: Why do you think they were so quick to want her to resign before they even looked into the facts?
Because a race step in our society is unforgiveable. We know that people have died from it. And this administration knows that the eyes of the conservatives are glued on them and they are looking for any chance to pounce on the image of the President. And so they are being careful. He took a big risk in having the beer summit. And that evidently didn’t come out as well as he would have liked it to come out, just a simple negotiating, sitting down and love, peaceful – There were no armies at war there – seemingly. But, there were.
Our nation is based unfortunately on racist foundations. The people who accept the racist perspectives are not going to give up in a day; nor a week. I’m 73 years old and I’ve been doing this for 50 years. I started out as a child. But, this has taught me that this monster, this racist society, can change its moods, can change its forms, can maneuver, can throw a rock and hide its hand, can throw a rock and show its hand. When it has the power to do so, it does so.
NNPA: What can be taken away from this?
Charles Sherrod: It’s a lot to take in and it’s taken us years to prepare for this day. But, the good thing about all of this is that it’s before the nation. Just that it’s before the nation, it’s where we’ve always wanted it to be - the question of who holds the power in our society and is that power racist power? Is that power used to put poor people in one place, colored people in another place and White people in still another place? That’s a question of racism.
NNPA: This has catapulted this whole question, this whole race debate before the nation, but what do we do with it, where do we go from here, what can actually move us forward on this issue of race?
Charles Sherrod: We’ve taken a first step. The first step is to confront each other; look each other in the mirror, I as a Black person and others, whatever hues they are, whatever has made you what you are, sitting down at a table with somebody across the table on an equal basis. That’s the key. Can we talk together in our society on an equal basis, accepting all the powers that you may have with all the powers that I may have, sitting down and making a conversation? That’s got to occur all over the country though. And occurring all over the country means it occurs in newspapers, it occurs in magazines, it occurs in TV forums, various media groups like CNN to push it. Just about every one of their programs had it on. All of the media has got to do this. We all have got to do this.
NNPA: We’ve got to do it, but is there something more that the President should do at this point?
Charles Sherrod: Putting this weight on the President is like putting the weight of passing the health bill on the President. That particular weight was on both the President and the Congress. The President can’t make two steps with legislation without the Congress approving it. And there are many other things that the president can’t do without the Senate advising and consenting. So, the President has got to be open to discussions and to take the same steps as a human being that others in giant corporations need to take as well and the policies that these giant corporations with thousands of employees, open discussions in those groups as well. But, to say that the President has got to take a different step that I personally have to take is putting too much weight on the President. We’ve all got to take our steps.
NNPA: There are some who have said that he’s too timid and that was the reason that this happened to your wife in the first place was because of the timidity because of the knee-jerk reaction to anything pertaining to race instead of going deeper.
Charles Sherrod: Do you think that the decision to do that was on the back of the President when the President has got thousands of issues coming before him every day? Every day he’s got issues across the streams of our society that stop at his door. He doesn’t have to take care of all of those issues ...That’s why he’s got a staff of hundreds of people.
NNPA: Andrew Brietbart, that blogger, still hasn’t apologized. What would you say to him at this point?
Charles Sherrod: I’d say to him the same thing that I would say to millions of White people across the country – that we’ve got to move forward together. We’ve got to accept that we are human beings, that we are not perfect and that we make mistakes. We have grown up and the system has taught us certain things. And at some point when we observe the things that we’ve grown up with, that we’ve been taught – and this is the point where I’m hoping that we can get to this year, this day, this week – is that there are some things that we have to accept, but there are some things that we can tell ourselves that are wrong that we have done and we know they are wrong….
I’m just saying that we are a confused bunch because of racism in our society in the way that we’ve been brought up. So, we are messed up. All of us, we are messed up. I can’t forget all of the things that have happened to me. I forgive. I can forgive. I can say I’m not holding this in my heart against anybody. I wouldn’t hurt anybody because of the wrong that they’ve done to me all my life. But, I’ve got to accept that there’s something wrong inside of me that hurts; that’s suffering that begs for release. But, I’m not going to have it released in front of you to hurt you.
Some of those things I’ve got to deal with for the rest of my life. Things that White people have done to me; how they’ve hurt me. Things they’ve said to me face to face; the beatings that I’ve taken; the jailings that I’ve taken in five states. All of this is inside of me. I can’t just put it aside but I can decide who I want to be. Despite all the hurt that I have, I’m not going to hurt another brother.
NNPA: Has what happened last week added to that hurt?
Charles Sherrod: It’s added to that hurt. But, it’s also taken away and soothed that hurt. There is an instance in which the truth was twisted, but the truth got out as well. And it got out with the help of a White man and a White woman. Now that’s having a good week.