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The Other Side of Shirley Sherrod

by RON WILKINS

Imagine farm workers doing back breaking labor in the sweltering sun, sprayed with pesticides and paid less than minimum wage. Imagine the United Farm Workers called in to defend these laborers against such exploitation by management. Now imagine that the farm workers are black children and adults and that the managers are Shirley Sherrod, her husband Rev. Charles Sherrod, and a host of others. But it’s no illusion; this is fact.

The swirling controversy over the racist dismissal of Shirley Sherrod from her USDA post has obscured her profoundly oppositional behavior toward black agricultural workers in the 1970s. What most of Mrs. Sherrod’s supporters are not aware of is the elitist and anti-black-labor role that she and fellow managers of New Communities Inc. (NCI) played. These individuals under-paid, mistreated and fired black laborers–many of them less than 16 years of age–in the same fields of southwest Georgia where their ancestors suffered under chattel slavery.

When I first noticed the story of her firing and the association of Shirley Sherrod’s name with the rural black poor and concern for “black land-loss”, I wondered if the person being praised was the same Shirley Sherrod whom I knew. One piece posted on the July 23rd Alternet and captioned “Shirley Sherrod and the black Land Struggle” even claimed that she “devoted her entire life to economic justice”. The mistreatment of black workers at NCI under the Sherrods is a matter of record that contradicts this claim.

If confession is good for the soul, then Mrs. Sherrod took a first step toward her redemption by admitting the error of her ways in her earlier attitudes toward poor white farmers. Mrs. Sherrod says she began to see poverty as more central than race. So, should indigent black child farm laborers warrant less reflection by Mrs. Sherrod? What lessons does she have to share from her tenure as management when she had power over her own people working under deplorable conditions at the same New Communities, Inc.(NCI) identified in the current issue? Shirley Sherrod could have included this chapter of her history in the same confession speech. Justice and integrity require at least as much accountability from Mrs. Sherrod to the poor black farm workers of NCI as to the white farmers she came to befriend. This lack of full disclosure of the whole truth is a “sin of omission” that trivializes the suffering of poor black farm workers and exacerbates the offenses of NCI.

Shirley Sherrod was New Communities Inc. store manager during the 1970s. As such, Mrs. Sherrod was a key member of the NCI administrative team, which exploited and abused the workforce in the field. The 6,000 acre New Communities Inc. in Lee County promoted itself during the latter part of the 1960s and throughout the 70s as a land trust committed to improving the lives of the rural black poor. Underneath this facade, the young and old worked long hours with few breaks, the pay averaged sixty-seven cents an hour, fieldwork behind equipment spraying pesticides was commonplace and workers expressing dissatisfaction were fired without recourse.

The unfortunate story of Mrs. Annie Hawkins and her family in particular is instructive. Persuaded by NCI that their lot would be improved, the Hawkins family stole away from the Georgia plantation that they had called home. After suffering abuse meted out to them and others at NCI, Mrs. Hawkins sadly stated that, “We stole away from one plantation, but just ended up on another.” For her courageous role in demonstrations against the Sherrods and NCI management, Annie Hawkins and her family were fired and kicked out of the house that they were promised. My last encounter with an ailing Mrs. Hawkins took place several years ago in a nursing home where she resided.

Worker protest at New Communities eventually garnered some assistance from the United Farm Workers Union in nearby Florida in the person of one of its most formidable organizers, black State Director, the late Mack Lyons. The September 28, 1974 UFW newspaper El Malcriado, page two, reported on the worker’s strike (“Children Farm Workers Strike Black Co-op” www.farmworkermovement.org/ufwarchives) and the UFW stepped in to protect black farm workers from exploitation by NCI. Fearful of both UFW efforts to unionize NCI’s labor force and scrutiny by the Georgia State Wage and Hour Division, the Sherrods and NCI management hastily issued checks in varying amounts to strikers to makeup ostensibly for minimum wage differentials. It is bitter irony that the Sherrods have succeeded in being awarded $300,000 following a discrimination lawsuit, while Mrs. Hawkins and other impoverished NCI black laborers whom NCI exploited were never adequately compensated for their “pain and suffering”.

While it is true that loan discrimination and relentless creditors can be cited for the eventual demise of New Communities Inc. in 1985, NCI’s unfair labor practices and poor leadership, were equally, if not more, to blame. Ask Shirley Sherrod about this part of her history. I know this story well, for I was one of those workers at NCI.

RON WILKINS is a former organizer in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. In 1974, under an assumed name, he hired-on at New Communities Inc. The Emergency Land Fund, an Atlanta-based black land retention organization, which shared oversight responsibility for NCI’s progress, wanted to know the basis for NCI’s continued poor performance. The author’s secondary purpose was to develop agricultural skills. For his role in organizing NCI’s workers, management eventually fired him from his $40 per week position, evicted him from the rent-free shack on NCI property and orchestrated his arrest, on bogus charges, by FBI agents and Lee County, Georgia Sheriff’s deputies in the midst of an NCI labor protest. The charges were later dropped. Presently he is an Africana Studies professor at California State University, Dominguez Hills. He can be reached at: rwilkins@csudh.edu

 

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