Shirley Sherrod Stands Up To The Politics Of Fear

Shirley Sherrod was forced out of the Department of Agriculture because of a misleading video. An edited clip appeared to show her saying she didn't want to help white farmers save their land. But the entire speech made it clear that Sherrod was actually saying racism is wrong. She talks with host Michel Martin about her book The Courage To Hope.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I bet you remember the name Shirley Sherrod. She is the former Agriculture Department official who was forced to resign from her job two years ago after a misleadingly edited clip of her speech in an NAACP event was sent around by the late conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart. Here's a cleaned up version of what he first released.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)

SHIRLEY SHERROD: I was struggling with the fact that so many black people have lost their farmland and here I was faced with having to help a white person save their land. So I didn't give him the full force of what I could do.

MARTIN: Eventually, the entire speech was made public and that revealed that Sherrod was actually making the opposite point, that racism is wrong. Her former supervisors apologized to her. She even received a phone call from the president, but not before she was publicly criticized and some might argue humiliated by the administration and prominent black and civil rights and media figures.

Shirley Sherrod chronicles the ordeal and the life experiences that helped her cope in her new book "The Courage To Hope: How I Stood Up to the Politics of Fear." And she joins us now in our studios in Washington, D.C.

Welcome. Thanks for joining us.

SHERROD: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Is it painful to listen to that clip even now?

SHERROD: It was to hear that, just to hear that part without the rest of it.

MARTIN: Did you remember - when you were first giving that speech - I mean I'm presuming that's not the first time you told that story, right?

SHERROD: No. I have been telling that story at that time for 24 years because it was 24 years or earlier when I had my transformation while working with a white farmer. That working with him helped me to see that the problem was more about being poor.

MARTIN: The farmer was a man named Roger Spooner and his wife Eloise...

SHERROD: Yes.

MARTIN: ...were two farmers who were in danger of losing their farm and you in fact stepped in to help them. But can you just take us back to when you first realized that this was a thing, that the speech that you have been giving for however many years, something had happened and it had become a problem?

SHERROD: Well, five days before the public heard about it, I was in a meeting in Atlanta with 1890 land-grant institutions and I made a presentation with three other rural development state directors. When I sat down I decided to check my BlackBerry for messages and I had a message there from someone who said you should be ashamed of yourself, working for the government and refusing to help a white farmer. Now that was not what happened so I sat there and sent a message back to that individual, saying that's not my message and in fact, it happened 24 years earlier. Not only did I work with the white farmer, but I saved his farm.

MARTIN: And you had, presumably, you'd communicated this to your supervisors back in Washington...

SHERROD: Absolutely.

MARTIN: So you what? You figure that was the end of it?

SHERROD: Well, actually, I thought it could be explosive so I immediately sent all of that correspondence with that individual to Washington and asked for help. I was told that they would call me at 4 o'clock, so I drove an hour south from Atlanta, pulled into a service station to wait for the call that didn't come.

MARTIN: You mention that one of the things that you couldn't believe is how quickly the administration moved to force you out, even though the full tape was available. But not just the administration. You were particularly kind of galled that the NAACP had the tape and somehow were still taking the wrong impression of it. Why do you think that is?

SHERROD: You know, I don't understand why they would so quickly condemn me without even listening. This was a local chapter of the NAACP in Georgia. All they had to do was ask for a copy of the tape. But to condemn me without that was just as bad but probably hurt more than what happened with the administration.

MARTIN: And then the support came from, guess who, the very family that you had helped.

SHERROD: Yes.

MARTIN: The Spooners. Tell us about that. What happened?

SHERROD: Right. That was, you know, I was actually doing an interview on CNN from my home when the person who was conducting the interview said wait a minute, we have someone here. And the next voice I heard was Eloise Spooner. Now I had not talked to them probably in 20 years. What they told me later was their daughter-in-law saw me on TV and said - told her husband to look. And then he said that's my mom and daddy's friend. So he got in his truck and went to their home and told them turn your TV on. Your friend is on. When they saw what was happening they started calling CNN and actually got through to CNN while I was on the air.

MARTIN: One of the points that you make in the book is that there have been a number of lawsuits against the Department of Agriculture by various groups, African-Americans, Native American farmers, women farmers, Latino farmers, that the administration has settled after what has been described as a long-standing pattern of discrimination against these specific groups and not one USDA executive or administrator had ever been fired for civil rights violations that the administration has paid millions of dollars to settle until you.

SHERROD: That's true. I'm the only one.

MARTIN: What do you make of that?

SHERROD: Well, racism has been front and center at USDA through the years and it hasn't ended yet.

MARTIN: So let's go back to you. And if you're just joining us, I'm speaking with Shirley Sherrod. We're talking about her new memoir "The Courage to Hope: How I Stood Up to the Politics of Fear." If you'll remember, she is the Agricultural Department official who was pressured to resign after false accusations were made that she had expressed racist, you know, beliefs at a speech to the NAACP. It later emerged that the speech had been misleadingly edited to show the opposite point that she had been making.

So I want to go back and talk a little bit about your background. I mean you say in the book that you grew up on a farm in Georgia but you always had it in your mind that you would leave as soon as you could.

SHERROD: Yes.

MARTIN: And if you don't mind, and I understand it is painful. Would you just say why that is?

SHERROD: Well, growing up in the days of segregation and Jim Crow in Baker County, having a sheriff - The Gator - that's what he wanted to be called, The Gator. And The Gator ruled everyone and everything in Baker County. In addition to that, the working on the farm, that's hard work. I would during the summer picking cotton, I would look at the sun and say you just wait because I had set my time to leave. So I wanted to leave the farm and leave the South.

MARTIN: And you didn't because?

SHERROD: Because my father was murdered during my senior year of high school. In fact, March of 1965. See, I wanted to do something about what had happened. I couldn't pick up a gun and go and to kill the person. But I had to do something. And it just occurred to me that night as I prayed that I could give up my dream of leaving Baker County and living in the North and stay to make things different, not just for those of us in Baker but for others. And I didn't want people to ever forget my father, Hosie Miller.

MARTIN: Why had he been murdered?

SHERROD: Supposedly, this farmer had cows that had gotten in our pasture in 1963. Now they rounded all but one of them up and it was one they couldn't catch, so they - he just left them there. And suddenly, in 1965, he said he was coming to get the cow. We met him on the road when we were going to church on Sunday. My father told him if you come tomorrow I'll get others to come and help and I'll meet you at the pasture at nine, and that's exactly what happened. But instead of his cow, he tried to claim other cows and he and my father argued. My father finally said I don't have to keep arguing, we can just go to court. And as he was leaving, that's when he was shot.

MARTIN: Was anybody ever brought to justice for this?

SHERROD: No. The grand jury was all white and they refused, even though there were witnesses - three witnesses were black - they refused to indict him.

MARTIN: But this I think story is very telling because one of the things that you say in the book is that you think that part of the issue here is that none of the people - neither the president for many of the people around him - understood what you and so many others like you had gone through. And you said that you couldn't help think that if Obama had grown up black in segregated Georgia he would not have acted so precipitously. If he'd known me and known my experiences maybe he would have said wait, let's look at this first. Why do you say that?

SHERROD: Well, he didn't live the life. That's why when he called me and he said, you know, those issues you've been talking about during the week, I'm well aware of them. My response to him was, you don't understand these issues the same way I do. You can't read about them and fully understand them the way people who live them understand them.

MARTIN: But what would that have done in terms of understand them? You think that he would've not been so quick to assume that you were wrong? Because somebody might listen to this and think the opposite. Somebody might think if somebody killed my father I'd hate them forever.

SHERROD: Then you would have to know some of us who live in the South. Many of us, we're so forgiving.

(LAUGHTER)

SHERROD: That's the way we're trained. So when you've lived that kind of life you don't immediately think you hear something and think that's just the way it is. No.

MARTIN: Well, that's one of the things that you - I wanted to ask you about. I mean the subtitle of your book is it's - the title is "The Courage to Hope" and you talk about the politics of fear. When you talk about the politics of fear what are you talking about?

SHERROD: Well, I'm talking about being afraid to look deeper. You know, you think this happened, we just need to brush it under the rug as soon as possible, get rid of the Shirley Sherrod problem and move on. In fact, they were patting themselves on the back the next day, in fact. So from a foyer request where an LA Times reporter had gotten the emails between the White House and USDA and someone from the White House emailed them at USDA the next day commending them on dealing with the Shirley Sherrod problem. I would have to have been out of my mind to do what I was being accused of.

MARTIN: But why would a president who was elected decisively by the American people, who had - as you note in the book - spoken eloquently and boldly about race during the campaign, why do you think then that his administration would turn around and not at least investigate the facts? What's your sense of it?

SHERROD: I guess it has something to do with the fact that when you look at everything he's tried to say and do, there are people on the right who challenge it. And I guess because of that they have become afraid of taking a stand, especially when race is involved. He could discuss it prior to being elected but somehow once the election took place, being known or being thought of as the black president I guess was something he and others wanted to distance themselves from.

MARTIN: You were offered another job in the administration - not your old job because the Secretary Vilsack - as you recounted says that, you know, you wouldn't be able to function effectively in your old job. You were offered another job which they perceived as more high-profile. You chose not to take it. Why is that?

SHERROD: Well, it should have been telling that they didn't offer my old job back to me. You got be a little suspicious when you haven't done anything wrong, and in fact they looked at work that I had done after I left and commended me on being able to get three times more money into persistently poor counties in the state of Georgia in the short time I was there then they had done in the previous eight years. So obviously I was doing a good job. He...

MARTIN: So what did you interpret that to be about? Did you think that they were trying to - forgive me - set you up for you to fail?

SHERROD: Yes.

MARTIN: Or just to get you out of the way or...

SHERROD: Both.

(LAUGHTER)

SHERROD: They had - they still had a problem and it would have been one way of pulling me where they could keep an eye on and keep my mouth shut.

MARTIN: Which you have not done.

SHERROD: That's right.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: How are you now? How do you feel now?

SHERROD: You know, I've referred to all of this as, when you've done the work that I've done you get these bumps in the road, so what happened to me was another bump. Now it's a bump that brought national attention, something I was not aiming to try to get. But, you know, there are bumps in the road and you just move on.

MARTIN: A couple of other things have happened since then over the last couple of years. Andrew Breitbart, who initially distributed that misleadingly edited video, has since died.

SHERROD: Yes.

MARTIN: And before he died you were suing him. I just wanted to ask what's the status of that? Is that now moot?

SHERROD: Well, prior to his death, he and his partner had actually filed two appeals. They tried to get the case dismissed and, failing that, they tried to get it moved to California and the judge ruled against them. So they appealed that action and the ruling hasn't come down on that. So until that happens I really don't know.

MARTIN: Did he or did his associates ever apologize to you?

SHERROD: No. In fact, they kept that tape - that altered tape - on their website and that's one of the actions we asked them to deal with in the lawsuit.

MARTIN: Do you feel vindicated? I don't mean by his death, but by the subsequent events, the fact that the full tape came out, the fact that the Spooners came to your defense and pointed out your true history and what had occurred?

SHERROD: Yes. And I just feel that it was a lesson for this administration and for others in this country. We're so quick to judge, you know, we need to take a minute, breathe a little and at least look to find the real story.

MARTIN: What should we draw from this experience? What would you like to listen to be?

SHERROD: Well, one lesson, you know, breathe.

(LAUGHTER)

SHERROD: Don't judge so quickly. Let's at least give some benefit of the doubt before jumping out to accuse and destroy someone. But then, forgive. You know, I could've been angry with the NAACP leaders, the president and the administration forever, but I fully support the president and his administration. And I say to people all the time we can't let these little things, those of us who think alike, we can't let them divide us. There's so much work that we still have to do and we have to learn to forgive and move on together to make the changes we need to make.

MARTIN: Do you envision a time when we won't be having the kinds of conversations we're having now? I mean you - many people after the president was elected called this a post-racial era. Many, many other people said that is absolutely not true. Can you envision a time when we won't be talking about this?

SHERROD: You know, my hope is in the young people. If we allow the young people to work with each other, get to know each other, to interact with each other without trying to bring our biases in and trying to change them in some way because of how we feel, I think it may take another 100 years, but I think it'll happen.

MARTIN: Shirley Sherrod is the author of the new book "The Courage to Hope: How I Stood Up to the Politics of Fear." She was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studios.

Thank you so much for joining us.

SHERROD: Thank you.

MARTIN: And we'd like to add that we contacted the USDA about some of the other points Shirley Sherrod made in the book and in our conversation, especially her accusation of systemic racism in the department. The department sent us a statement saying the USDA has quote, "undertaken historic ongoing efforts to ensure that the employees, farmers and ranchers we serve are treated equally and fairly as part of a new era of civil rights at the USDA," unquote.

We also want to mention that we closely followed the issues in those lawsuits and settlements involving the USDA, and you can catch up on any of those stories by going to our website, NPR.org/TELL ME MORE.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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