[Marxism] Sherrod's steadfast motto: 'Let's work together'

Greg McDonald gregmc59 at gmail.com
Thu Jul 22 06:42:43 MDT 2010


Atlanta, Georgia (CNN) -- Shirley Miller Sherrod has spent most of her
life fighting injustice.

On the Baker County, Georgia, farm where the Miller family grew corn,
peanuts, cotton and cucumbers and raised hogs, cows and goats, oldest
daughter Shirley despised the work.

"I swore I would never have anything to do with a farm past high
school," she said Wednesday with an easy chuckle. "I would talk to the
sun as I picked cotton and picked cucumbers and worked out there in
that hot field, and [say], 'This is not the life for me.' I didn't
want to have anything to do with agriculture ever again."

On the night in 1965 when her father, Hosie Miller, a black man and a
deacon at Thankful Baptist Church, was shot to death by a white farmer
in what ostensibly was a dispute over a few cows, Sherrod -- then 17
years old -- changed her mind.

"I decided to stay in the South and work for change," said Sherrod,
now 62, who believes her father's killing was more about a Southern
black man speaking up to a white man than about who owned which
animals. The all-white grand jury didn't bring charges against the

That summer, when she and several other blacks went to the county
courthouse to register to vote, the county sheriff blocked the door
and even pushed her husband-to-be, Lester Sherrod, down the stairs,
she said. Activists used that incident to get a restraining order
against the sheriff so blacks could register to vote, she said.

Sherrod worked for civil rights with the Student Nonviolent
Coordinating Committee while studying sociology at Albany State
University in Georgia. She later earned her master's degree in
community development from Antioch University in Yellow Springs, Ohio.
Video: Sherrod: 'I worked for fairness'
Video: Gibbs: Sherrod owed an apology
Video: Reaction to White House apology
Video: Who is to blame for Sherrod saga?

    * Shirley Sherrod
    * Social Issues
    * U.S. Department of Agriculture

Sherrod returned to rural Georgia to help minority farmers keep their
land in a place where history is against them. She has often gone toe
to toe with the local offices of government agencies, including the
U.S. Department of Agriculture before she worked there, she said.

Sherrod was forced out of her job with the USDA this week after a
video emerged in which she seemingly admitted to failing to try to
help a white farmer save his land from foreclosure in 1986. She has
since said her words, recorded in March at a Douglas County, Georgia,
NAACP meeting, were deliberately taken out of context. The story, she
said, was part of a broader message she has given many times about the
need to move beyond race.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Wednesday afternoon that
Sherrod is "owed an apology. I would do that on behalf of this

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Wednesday that he offered his
"personal and profound apology for the pain and discomfort" caused to
Sherrod and her family.

"It makes me feel better," she said in response on CNN. "It took too
long, but it makes me feel better that the apology's coming."

"... Why did they hire me in the first place if they didn't believe in
what I had done up to this point?"

What she had done is work tirelessly for minority farmers for four decades.

Because of discriminatory lending practices, black farmers were losing
their farms in the late 1960s and '70s. After college, Sherrod
co-founded New Communities Inc., a black communal farm project in Lee
County, Georgia, that was modeled on kibbutzim in Israel. Local white
farmers viciously opposed the 6,000-acre operation, accusing
participants of being communists and occasionally firing shots at
their buildings, Sherrod said.

"They did everything they could to fight us," she said.

When drought struck the South in the 1970s, the federal government
promised to help New Communities through the Office of Economic
Opportunity. But the money was routed through the state, led by
segregationist Gov. Lester Maddox, and the local office of the Farmers
Home Administration, whose white agent was in no hurry to write the
checks, she said.

It took three years for New Communities to get an "emergency" loan, she said.

"By the time we got it, it was much too late," Sherrod said.

The operation hobbled along for a few years with other financing, but
creditors ultimately foreclosed on the property in 1985, she said.

Getting money for any minority farmer out of that FmHA office "was
always a fight," Sherrod said. But she made a point of learning the
regulations so thoroughly that she understood them better than the
bureau agent, she said.

"I was such a thorn in his side," she said, that the agent eventually
left the bureau for good.

Using that experience, Sherrod worked with the Federation of Southern
Cooperatives to help black farmers keep their land. The group worked
with U.S. Rep. Mike Espy, D-Mississippi (who later became agriculture
secretary), and Sen. Wyche Fowler, D-Georgia, to pass the Minority
Farmers Rights Act in 1990. The measure, known as Section 2501,
authorized $10 million a year in technical assistance to black
farmers, but only $2 million to $3 million a year has been

With black-owned farms heading toward extinction, Sherrod and other
activists sued the USDA. In a consent decree, the USDA agreed to
compensate black farmers who were victims of discrimination between
January 1, 1981, and December 31, 1999. It was the largest civil
rights settlement in history, with nearly $1 billion being paid to
more than 16,000 victims. Legislation passed in 2008 will allow nearly
70,000 more potential claimants to qualify.

"I was deeply involved in all of that work and in the settlement, and
in helping farmers to file their claims," she said. "So I was having
to fight USDA just for the services, for the loans for farmers, for
some of the programs that should have been automatic, that others were

USDA hired Sherrod as its Georgia director of rural development in
August 2009. She was the first black person in that position; of 129
USDA employees in Georgia, only 20 are black, she said.

Her family still owns the farm in Baker County, plus an additional 30
acres she bought from a cousin. She hasn't had time to work the land

"I'd like to try some of the things I've taught others," she said,
again laughing.

Sherrod emphasizes that the speech that caused all the controversy was
about embracing diversity and using the strengths of every culture.

"We've got to get beyond this [racial division]," she said. "... My
message has been, 'Let's work together.' That's what my message has
always been."

Despite her father's killing and the injustices that followed, the
racial hatred she has fought all her life, and now her quick exit from
the USDA, Sherrod refuses to become bitter.

"I can't hold a grudge. I can't even stay mad for long," she said. "I
just try to work to make things different. If I stayed mad, if I tried
to hate all the time, I wouldn't be able to see clearly in order to do
some of the things that I've been able to do.

"Even with this, I'm not angry. I'm not angry. I'm out of a job today,
but I'm not angry. I will survive. I have. I can't dwell on that. I
just feel there's a need to go forward."

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