FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

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

 

WORDS THAT STICK

?

 

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

May 30, 2017
Kenneth Surin
Can the Impossible Happen in Britain?
W. T. Whitney
Why Does the United States Beat Up On Capitalist Russia?
Patrick Cockburn
We Can’t Let Britain to Become a Vast ISIS Recruiting Station
Michael J. Sainato
Leaks and Militarized Policing: Water Protectors are Proven Right
Ted Rall
What Do the Democrats Want? No One Knows
David J. Lobina
The Israel-Palestine Conflict and Political Activism
Martha Rosenberg
Once Again, Mainstream Media Does Pharma’s Bidding
David L. Glotzer
Social Security: Clearing Up the Financial Nonsense
Edward Hunt
If They are Wrong the Planet Dies
Lawrence Wittner
How Business “Partnerships” Flopped at America’s Largest University
Guillermo R. Gil
Poems Must Never be White
Martin Billheimer
Strategies of Rose and Thorn in Portland
Tony Christini
What isn’t Said: Bernie Sanders in 2020
Chandra Muzaffar
Fasting for Palestinian Justice and Dignity
Clancy Sigal
Even Grammar Bleeds
May 29, 2017
Jim Kavanagh
No Laughing Matter: The Manchester Bomber is the Spawn of Hillary and Barack’s Excellent Libyan Adventure
Vijay Prashad
The Afghan Toll
Melvin Goodman
The Washington Post’s Renewed Attack on Whistlblowers
Robert Fisk
We Must Look to the Past, Not ISIS, for the True Nature of Islam
Dean Baker
A Tax on Wall Street Trading is the Best Solution to Income Inequality
Lawrence Davidson
Reality and Its Enemies
Harry Hobbs
Australia’s Time to Recognize Indigenous Peoples’ Sovereignty
Ray McGovern
Will Europe Finally Rethink NATO’s Costs?
Cesar Chelala
Poetry to the Rescue of America’s Soul
Andrew Stewart
Xi, Trump and Geopolitics
Binoy Kampmark
The Merry Life of Dragnet Surveillance
Stephen Martin
The Silent Apartheid: Militarizing Architecture & Infrastructure
Weekend Edition
May 26, 2017
Friday - Sunday
Anthony DiMaggio
Swamp Politics, Trump Style: “Russiagate” Diverts From the Real White House Scandals
Paul Street
It’s Not Gonna Be Okay: the Nauseating Nothingness of Neoliberal Capitalist and Professional Class Politics
Jeffrey St. Clair
The ICEmen Cometh
Ron Jacobs
The Deep State is the State
Pete Dolack
Why Pence Might be Even Worse Than Trump
Patrick Cockburn
We Know What Inspired the Manchester Attack, We Just Won’t Admit It
Thomas Powell
The Dirty Secret of the Korean War
Mark Ashwill
The Fat Lady Finally Sings: Bob Kerrey Quietly Resigns from Fulbright University Vietnam Leadership Position
John Davis
Beyond Hope
Uri Avnery
The Visitation: Trump in Israel
Ralph Nader
The Left/Right Challenge to the Failed “War on Drugs”
Traci Yoder
Free Speech on Campus: a Critical Analysis
Dave Lindorff
Beware the Supporter Scorned: Upstate New York Trump Voters Hit Hard in President’s Proposed 2018 Budget
Daniel Read
“Sickening Cowardice”: Now More Than Ever, Britain’s Theresa May Must be Held to Account on the Plight of Yemen’s Children
Ana Portnoy
Before the Gates: Puerto Rico’s First Bankruptcy Trial
M. Reza Behnam
Rethinking Iran’s Terrorism Designation
Brian Cloughley
Ukraine and the NATO Military Alliance
Josh Hoxie
Pain as a Policy Choice
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail