Justification Of USDA Official's Resignation Now In Question

An Agriculture Department official is at the center of the ongoing dialogue between the political left and right about who is fanning the flames of racism in politics. Shirley Sherrod, a Georgia state director of rural development, was relieved from her post after a blogger posted a racially-themed commentary by Sherrod to YouTube. It was discovered later the video was edited. Host Michel Martin talks with reporter Marcus Garner who has been covering this for the Atlanta Journal Constitution for the latest in this story.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News.

Coming up, we go to Utah, where media organizations and law enforcement officials recently received a lengthy list of personal information about 1,300 people with Hispanic surnames. Those who compiled the list insisted those on it are in the U.S. illegally and should be deported. We'll talk with Utah's attorney general about how this happened and what happens next. That conversation in a few minutes.

But, first, the strange case of Shirley Sherrod. She's the U.S. Department of Agriculture employee who resigned under pressure yesterday after the exposure of racially charged comments she made during a local NAACP event in March. Experts of those remarks were posted to YouTube by a conservative activist, and it quickly flamed both across the conservative media - or the media favored by conservative activists - and the mainstream media.

In a short clip of those comments, Sherrod talked about her ambivalence about helping a white farmer who had sought her help when she worked with a nonprofit group in 1986.

Ms. SHIRLEY SHERROD (Former Employee, USDA): 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: Sherrod was condemned both by conservative commentators, as well as by the president of the NAACP, who condemned her comments as racist. But it turns out that her controversial remarks were taken from and edited from a much longer 40-minute speech. And among those who have emerged as her staunchest defenders are Eloise and Roger Spooner, the white farmers about whom Sherrod had spoken.

Ms. ELOISE SPOONER (Farmer): Our son, he came up this morning and says, mama, turn on the TV to CNN. And he said, it's about your friend, Shirley Sherrod. And I said, what? And we listened, and I said, (unintelligible) that ain't right. They have not treated her right. She did - she's the one I give credit to helping us save our farm.

MARTIN: Now the NAACP has apologized. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says he's reconsidering his decision. And media outlets are debating whether YouTube is a blessing or a curse for political coverage. So what just happened? To help us try to understand this story, we'll be speaking with a couple guests today. In a few minutes, we'll go to the chair of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission.

But, first, we're joined by Marcus Garner. He's been reporting about this for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and he's with us now from member station WABE in Atlanta. Thanks so much for joining us.

Mr. MARCUS GARNER (Reporter, Atlanta Journal-Constitution): Hey, how are you doing?

MARTIN: Great. Now, I understand you've interviewed Shirley Sherrod. And if I could just ask, what's the latest from her?

Mr. GARNER: Well, I mean, the latest is, you know, she's obviously still not she hadn't - she doesn't have a job. And I'm sure - I haven't been able to speak to her since this news that Tom Vilsack considering asking her to resign. But, you know, she said that, you know, she was pretty much, I guess, badgered into resigning. I mean, as she's driving back from somewhere in rural Georgia to her home in Albany, she was, you know, called by an undersecretary at least three or four times and, you know, actually told, look, pull over to the side of the road and, you know, tender your resignation.

MARTIN: And why was she told to resign?

Mr. GARNER: She said that they felt that the statements, as they were presented, were politically damaging.

MARTIN: Now, Sherrod's insisted from the beginning that her remarks had been taken out of context, and something that many people think is supported by a fuller review of the speech. The entire speech has recently become available. I'll just play another short clip of more of what she had to say that day in March. Here it is.

Mr. GARNER: OK.

Ms. SHERROD: When I made that commitment, I was making that commitment to black people, and to black people only. But, you know, God will show you things and he'll put things in your path so that you realize that the struggle is really about poor people.

MARTIN: What she seems to be saying here is that she realized that she was wrong to have this that number one, she did help these farmers when they approached her, but that she was wrong to view this question racially and that she was describing a change of heart. Did she say that when you talked to her, if she, in fact, saying that that is what she believes?

Mr. GARNER: Yes. That's exactly what she was - what she told me. And interestingly enough, that clip that you just played was the - I guess the words that led right into the clip that showed up on YouTube. I mean, immediately after that, you see what was - YouTube and began the controversy in the first place. So it seems, you know, pretty clear that that statement there, at least, if nothing else, sets up, you know, her walk through her revelation, so to speak.

MARTIN: Now, finally, before we let you go, Marcus, do you know whether she says that nobody was interested in hearing her side of this. Did you have any evidence that either Andrew Breitbart, who initially disseminated these comments, the NAACP or the White House sought comment from her before disseminating this, or asked her what her intention was or saw the fuller the whole tape before all these decisions were made? Do you know if any of that occurred?

Mr. GARNER: Well, she said that she, you know, when she was having the conversation with that undersecretary, she told them then that, you know, those comments were taken out of context. And, you know, in the statement that we received from the Agriculture Department, they actually said that, you know, regardless of whether or not her comments were in context or not, they were intolerable.

And she explained to them, and she said that this was a story that she tells pretty regularly. so it's not something that it wasn't a brand new thing, or it should not have been brand new to anyone.

MARTIN: And just a final question for you, is it also accurate that it's been reported that Shirley Sherrod and her husband, as farmers themselves, participated in a settlement that has recently been released that has recently been reached with the USDA and black farmers to compensate for decades of discrimination by the USDA? Is that accurate, to your knowledge?

Mr. GARNER: She was actually part of a group, I think it's called a Pigford Settlement. She was part of a group of farmers who received the settlement shortly before she was actually named to her position with the USDA.

MARTIN: I see. So that was known.

Mr. GARNER: That was known.

MARTIN: Marcus Garner: He reports for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He's been following this story and we reached him in Atlanta. Marcus, thank you for speaking with us.

Mr. GARNER: Thank you very much, Michel.

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