In March 2010, Shirley Sherrod spoke before the NAACP in Douglas, Georgia. As the first Black director of the USDA’s Rural Development in Georgia, and a long history of advocating for justice and civil rights in the rural south, Shirley had much to share. I recounted this in my recent article The Racist History of the USDA. But there is need for further explanation.
One experience, that Shirley has recounted numerous times with audiences, was how she helped save the farm of a white family in the 1980’s. It was life changing for her. She talked about this at the NAACP gathering and it was her presentation at this gathering that was recently distorted and distributed by Fox News and that led to her being asked to resign from USDA. The distortion made it look as if Shirley was racist; that she had not provided the assistance that she could or should to a white farmer who asked her for assistance. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The consequence of the distorted video and the actions of the Secretary of Agriculture by asking Shirley to resign is yet another shameful chapter in the history of American agriculture and the USDA. The decision by Secretary Vilsack was made without knowing the details. Nevertheless, he did apologize, as did the President, and that is, at least, appropriate and Shirley accepted their apologies.
I spoke with Shirley the morning after she was asked to resign and she shared with me what happened at the NAACP event as well as her experience with the white farmer who was referred to in the distorted video.
First, though, a definition of racism needs to be given and it is this: Everyone (white, black or brown) can and often does discriminate against someone else. This is probably human nature. Racism, however, is defined as discrimination plus the power to enforce your discriminatory views. In no way can Blacks be racist in America. Blacks don’t control the government, the banks, corporate America, or the courts. At the helm of these institutions in America are whites – and predominantly white males. It’s those of us who are white who are the racists. We control everything and can enforce our discriminatory views be it against blacks, immigrants, the poor, etc. You name whatever the prevailing discriminatory view might be among whites and rest assured we can usually enforce it. You can also rest assured that by doing so we whites demonstrate not a semblance of justice or an understanding of so-called democracy.
It’s we who are white who are in need of learning about justice and democracy and what they mean and about our abysmal supremacist past. We are the ones who need to get beyond our intransigent views. Shirley tries to teach us.
In the 1980’s Shirley was Georgia Field Director for the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund (Federation) that works primarily with Black farmers throughout the South. The organization grew out of the civil rights movement to assist farmers and rural communities across the region with, for example, land retention, access to credit and USDA programs, housing, farm management and importantly cooperative economic development. It continues with this important work today.
The 1980’s were a time when black and white farmers were losing their farms in record numbers.
In 1986, Shirley was approached, for the first time, by a white farmer who needed help. He was Roger Spooner from Iron City, Georgia. For someone white to ask for assistance from a black person was not the order of things in the South. He had been referred by the Georgia Department of Agriculture. Also Carolyn Mugar, director of FARM AID, was referring white farmers to the Federation in the 1980’s as it continues to do today.
The meeting at first was somewhat uncomfortable. He spent much of the time at the beginning of their discussion trying to demonstrate that he was superior to her. Southern poor whites have been socialized into thinking they are better than Blacks. It is always the classic divide and rule strategy by the white elite in the South to keep whites and blacks separated and controlled. In fact Shirley mentions this scenario in her NAACP speech about the history of how the races were divided by the white elite and why.
But in spite of all, Shirley recognized Spooner needed help.
There was a lot to consider as to what would be best for him and where she should seek assistance for him. She also thought that perhaps it was best that someone in the white community help him as her networks were not necessarily prepared to rally assistance for white farmers.
It was the beginning of a process that changed Shirley’s life as well as that of the Spooner family. It was a growing time for both.
Spooner’s visit to Shirley came just after Congress had passed the Chapter 12 bankruptcy provision to assist family farmers. Under Chapter 12 farmers could hold on to their land while arranging whatever they could to retain ownership. Chapter 12 also required that farmers had been in operation the previous year, otherwise, they were not able to file.
He needed an attorney. Shirley contacted a white attorney in Albany who she knew had gone through the Chapter 12 training. She also went with Spooner to the meeting with the attorney.
She, Spooner and his wife Eloise, then kept in close contact in the subsequent months and years as Spooner tried to hold on to his farm. Shirley helped him every step of the way.
One of the challenges faced by Spooner, however, and what was an eye opener for Shirley, was that the USDA county supervisor had rented Spooner’s farm to other producers without his approval. Because of this, Spooner was not able to file Chapter 12, as he could not claim having farmed the year before. Shirley had never witnessed this kind of abusive behavior by the USDA county supervisors even against Black farmers.
As it turned out, the Albany attorney was abysmal and did little for Spooner. Finally, in May of 1987, Spooner received a foreclosure notice along with 13 others in Georgia. He called Shirley and she asked him to come immediately. It was on Thursday before Memorial Day that they met. Time was limited as the farm was to be auctioned on the courthouse steps the week after Memorial Day.
They visited his Albany attorney who said, “You’re getting old, why don’t you let the farm go?” Shirley was outraged by the comment.
She then contacted another attorney in Americus, Georgia who had helped black farmers associated with the Federation. He immediately offered his assistance. On Tuesday after Memorial Day the attorney had the Spooner papers. Because Chapter 12 was not useful to Spooner, the attorney instead filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
The Spooner farm was saved, although the Chapter 11 filing was just the beginning of a process. It took 2 years for a final resolution. In the meantime, Shirley and the Spooners kept in close contact and a friendship evolved. They would often have lunches together after discussing the case. In the late 1980’s there was a conference in Atlanta on Black landloss issues. Shirley asked if the Spooner’s would like to attend. Roger Spooner drove his truck all the way from Florida so that he and his wife could drive from Albany with Shirley to the conference in Atlanta.
The lessons learned for Shirley from this experience were profound. While she had always thought that the white community and white farmers could work the system for their benefit, she realized this was not always the case. The Spooner’s were poor whites. They, as whites, had been treated by the USDA in a way she had not witnessed. She became aware that the problems farmers experienced were not only racial, but that it was also a question of those who have and those who do not. She stressed the importance of moving beyond race and for blacks and whites to work together and help each other. It was this that Shirley wanted to share with the NAACP.
HEATHER GRAY is the producer of "Just Peace" on WRFG-Atlanta 89.3 FM covering local, regional, national and international news. She has been involved in agriculture advocacy and communications for 20 years in the United States and internationally. She lives in Atlanta, Georgia and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org