The Saga of Shirley Sherrod

It would almost be a nice story if what recently happened to Shirley Sherrod and its resolution, with apologies from the government and offers of another job, was an isolated incident. It is not! Sherrod, a Black woman, and a USDA employee, was treated shamefully by the US Department of Agriculture. Sherrod’s treatment was not unique. The USDA has a long history of abuse even though the current Secretary of Agriculture has pledged there would be a change. Unfortunately, lawsuits filed in recent years against the USDA are a testament to this long history of discrimination and there is much yet to be resolved.

Sherrod was forcefully fired from her USDA government post this week by the Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack because of a distorted and edited video of a speech Sherrod gave in March 2010. It attempted to make her look as it she were a racist – the video clip was deliberately edited by an America’s right-wing blogger Andrew Breitbart and aired on the Fox News Channel.

The heat was on the Obama administration. It fired Sherrod without review or recourse.

As a result there has rightfully been an on-going media frenzy this week about Sherrod and her background and about her treatment by the USDA.

Then the truth and context with the entire tape was revealed. The government in turn, both the President’s office and the Secretary of Agriculture, reversed it’s decision, apologized and offered Sherrod another job at USDA. She is not yet sure if she will accept.

This, unfortunately, is not the end of the story. Sherrod’s experience was not an isolated one and does not explain the totality of the USDA. Today there are lawsuits against the USDA by African American, Native American, Latino American and women farmers to name a few. The treatment of Shirley Sherrod is but another chapter in USDA’s shameful behavior.

In the totality of Sherrod’s 2010 speech before the NAACP in Douglas, Georgia, that was edited out by Breitbart, she shared her decades long history of service in the community and with Black farmers in particular. She shared about her personal traumatic experience of losing her father in the 1960’s, who was killed by a white neighbor. She was a teen then and, while she had wanted to leave the South, the night of her father’s murder she made the decision to stay and work to change the unjust and racist South and to work for justice.

In the 1980’s Sherrod ultimately devoted her attention to assisting Black farmers. And in her work at the Federation of Southern Cooperatives she tried to help farmers as they faced the now well-known discrimination from the USDA offices throughout the South. This discrimination usually resulted in the USDA offering no or limited service and credit to these farmers because they were Black.

In fact, in 1982, the US Commission on Civil Rights found in its research that the primary reason that Black farmers had lost land is because of the USDA itself.  Historically and presently, because of lack of services from the USDA, for decades thousands of Blacks have lost land, homes, untold assets, income and have essentially been forced off the land into urban areas or left trying desperately to make ends meet in rural communities. This is a parallel story with other groups who have also filed suit against the USDA.

This lack of service ultimately led to Black farmers successfully filing, in 1997, the largest class action lawsuit against the U.S. government.

Shirley Sherrod has a long, substantial and respected history of service and a well-earned stature throughout the southeast region and the country. If she can be treated so abysmally by the USDA, it makes it clear how those at USDA have so easily given disparate treatment to thousands of less fortunate black and brown farmers over the past many years.

Regarding this unjust treatment, in a July 21, 2010 letter to Secretary Vilsack from Ralph Paige, Executive Director of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, said, “We find it ironic that in the one hundred years of USDA’s history of discrimination, not a single white person has been dismissed for discrimination, however, a Black woman who is doing her job well is falsely accused of discrimination in an altered video and you decide that she can no longer do a credible and nondiscriminatory job of dispensing USDA rural development programs and must resign.”

Sherrod also describes in her speech how in the 1980’s a white farmer, who was about to lose his farm, asked her for assistance. She was appalled at how this farmer had been abused by the USDA.

Her speech, then, was a parable of her transformation in understanding, ultimately, that the issue was not always “race” in terms of  the discrimination that farmers experienced from the USDA. She realized that discrimination was also matter of “who has and who does not”. It was, as Shirley goes on to explain, a matter of the rich against the poor.

Secretary Vilsack has said in the past and recently in response to his dreadful treatment of Shirley Sherrod, that the USDA needs to get beyond it’s abysmal racist past and present behavior.

If  the Secretary is earnest about moving beyond the USDA racist history, he, the White House and Congress will finally put to rest the Native American and Black farmer lawsuits that are settled and now before Congress for funding. Thousands, close to 65,000 in fact, of Black farmers have waited for close to a decade for the case to be settled and to finally receive some compensation for the injustice they experienced from their government. Justice delayed is justice denied.

If the Secretary, Congress and the White House were serious about making amends they will make sure that all of these lawsuit now filed against USDA are resolved!

Further, Secretary Vilsack needs to have remedies put in place to prevent such disparate treatment from ever happening again to farmers be they black, brown, white or poor. It is a time of reckoning.

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 hmcgray@earthlink.net






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Heather Gray is a writer and radio producer in Atlanta, Georgia and has also lived in Canada, Australia, Singapore, briefly in the Philippines and has traveled in southern Africa. For 24 years she has worked in support of Black farmer issues and in cooperative economic development in the rural South. She holds degrees in anthropology and sociology. She can be reached at hmcgray@earthlink.net.

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