Almost three years ago, in late March 2010, Shirley Sherrod, who was then the USDA state director of rural development for Georgia, gave a forthright speech about her life story at an NAACP banquet. She told of how a white sheriff had lynched her cousin in 1943, how her father was killed by a white neighbor who went uncharged despite three witnesses, and how after her father’s death she dedicated herself to staying in Georgia to work for change. Initially, she said, her commitment was limited to the black community, but in 1985, her mind was changed.
That year, while Sherrod was working for the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, a nonprofit helping black farmers hang on to their land, Roger Spooner, a white farmer in danger of foreclosure, approached her for help. She took Spooner to a white lawyer, assuming that one of his “own kind would take care of him.” But when she discovered that the lawyer would do nothing for him, she did what she could instead. Eventually, she helped Spooner to keep his farm. This was a lesson from God, Sherrod said during her NAACP speech, to teach her that it’s not all about black and white, but about poverty also. “Working with him made me see that it’s really about those who have versus those who don’t,” she said.
Andrew Breitbart, the late conservative provocateur, published a video of that speech several months later. His version had been heavily edited to remove the context and ending, making Sherrod sound as if she were baldly discriminating against a white man because of his race. Although Breitbart’s reputation as a dissembler was well known, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack panicked after the video went viral. Sherrod’s supervisor called her later that day while she was driving home and asked her to pull over and type her resignation on her BlackBerry. Even the NAACP denounced her without watching the tape of its own event.
The next day, the truth came out. Spooner’s wife defended Sherrod on CNN, launching a full media firestorm. Vilsack called Sherrod to apologize and later offered her a high-level advocacy job in the USDA. (Sherrod felt this was a “backhanded apology” and refused the new post.) The president himself called as well to smooth things over.
To Sherrod, all that’s old news. These days, she has returned to the work she was doing before all the publicity. She still lives with her husband, Charles, in Albany, Georgia, where they raised their children and where she still spends her days working with poor and minority farmers. At the USDA, she oversaw development programs for poor rural communities, and before that she worked on the other side of the fence, for several private organizations advocating for poor and minority farmers. Now, as she explained in an interview with the Washington Monthly and in her recent autobiography, The Courage to Hope, she and her husband run two nonprofits.
The first organization is called New Communities, which was started in 1969. Back then, it was common for blacks who participated in the civil rights movement to lose their land on legally dubious grounds. White landlords would arbitrarily evict their activist sharecroppers, and white law enforcement would imprison workers on trumped-up charges. The idea behind New Communities was to form a collective farm for those dispossessed people, modeled on the Israeli kibbutzim, so they could work their own property without interference.
They acquired 5,700 acres, becoming one of the largest black-owned properties in the nation at the time. It was a success that did not come without caveats. Racist terrorists would occasionally strafe the farm’s buildings with gunfire, and local banks still often refused financing to the community. They also faced systematic discrimination from the local and national government, especially the USDA. When drought struck in the early 1980s, the USDA refused New Communities an emergency loan for an irrigation system with no explanation, while giving loans out to white farmers in similar situations. In 1982, when New Communities sold some timber to raise cash, the USDA insisted on taking the profits from the sale before giving another loan. An arbitrator later wrote, “The payment smacks of nothing more than a feudal baron demanding additional crops from his serfs.” The following year, when New Communities applied for another loan, the USDA demanded the title to their land as collateral, but then did not disburse the loan. By 1985, New Communities was forced to close its doors.
In 1997, this and other similar cases of discrimination led to an enormous class-action lawsuit against the USDA, Pigford v. Glickman. It resulted in more than $1 billion in payouts—the largest civil rights settlement to date. A 2008 bill, passed over George W. Bush’s veto, expanded the criteria of who could apply for the Pigford funds, so in 2009 New Communities finally got restitution. The organization was resurrected after receiving $12.8 million. Sherrod and her husband got $150,000 each for pain and suffering.
With that money, and under Sherrod’s leadership, New Communities was able in June 2011 to buy a new piece of property, called Cypress Pond. A 1,638-acre estate, complete with a colossal white-pillared antebellum mansion, it was originally owned by the largest slaveholder and richest man in Georgia. Due to the housing collapse, the price had been marked down from $21 million to $4.5 million. Sherrod plans to establish an agricultural training program there, as well as a program that will bring local blacks and whites together in partnership and promote racial healing. The old mansion is currently being renovated to make room for a conference center and additional meeting space. “White and black together in this area, I think it becomes the perfect place for being helpful in getting folks to get beyond race,” she says. In the meantime, they’re doing some actual farming. Just over the last year, they harvested $50,000 worth of pecans from previously planted trees to help defray maintenance costs.
Sherrod and her husband’s second nonprofit is the Southwest Georgia Project, which helps poor farmers sell their food to local schools. While the organization is currently battling bureaucratic snags, the idea is to help local farmers increase revenue by selling to reliable local buyers while simultaneously providing healthy, fresh food to schoolchildren.
In addition to her work on these two organizations, Sherrod also received a grant in April 2011 from the W. K. Kellogg Foundation (which has helped to fund this issue of the Washington Monthly). With that grant, she is working to help improve race relations and foster cooperation and partnership between blacks and whites in the often racially divisive region of southwest Georgia. She admits that so far it’s been an uphill battle. While things are “probably a little better” than they were in the 1960s, she says, people in southwest Georgia still “kind of know their place, and that’s the way it’s been through the years.” Institutionally, race relations have improved since the Jim Crow era, but in some ways things have gotten worse. “People can still go and sit in a restaurant, and eat. They can go and stay in a hotel somewhere. But when you look at what’s happening in the school system, they’ve almost been re-segregated again,” she said. Wilcox County High School, for example, does not have a school-supported prom, so black students and white students organize their own proms separately. Sherrod and her colleagues are working to change that.
The irony of Shirley Sherrod’s burst of fame nearly three years ago is that it had almost nothing to do with her at all. A race baiter thrust her briefly onto the national stage, where she stood accused of doing the exact opposite of what she’d spent her life doing. She has since returned to the grassroots advocacy work to which she has dedicated her life, and it’s here, it seems, she’d like to stay.