A former Department of Agriculture official said her termination was an unfair casualty of a larger political spat on race between the Tea Party movement and the NAACP, but Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack Tuesday afternoon stood by his decision to seek her termination based on a controversial anecdote she told earlier this year.
On Monday morning, conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart posted a video of Shirley Sherrod, then the US Department of Agriculture’s director of rural development for Georgia, along with an essay titled “Video Proof: The NAACP Awards Racism – 2010.”
The video featured a clip of Sherrod speaking at a March NAACP awards ceremony describing “the first time I was faced with having to help a white farmer save his farm.” Sherrod describes the farmer as “trying to show me he was superior to me… What he didn’t know was while he was taking all that time trying to show me he was superior to me, was I was trying to decide how much help I was going to give him.”
Sherrod continued, saying, “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. I did enough.”
The video, cited as proof of Sherrod’s racism – since it seems to show a government employee saying she discriminated on the basis of race – was seized by cable news outlets and on the internet.
Left out of the story’s race throughout the media world, at least in its initial few laps, were the facts that the incident in question took place in 1986 when she worked for a non-profit, the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund.
Sherrod’s larger argument was that her involvement with the white farmers in question -- Roger and Eloise Spooner from Iron City, Ga. -- made her realize a larger lesson. As she said in a different part of the video splice, “it was revealed to me that it’s about the poor versus those who have.”
Or, as she told ABC News Tuesday afternoon, she tells the story to share with people “how I grew. What happened to me while I worked for that farmer -- it helped me to see that it’s not about race, you know, we need to move beyond that.”
But back then, why would she look at white farmers differently than she did at black farmers?
“Because I always – up to that point – I felt they had all the advantages,” Sherrod said. “Until I started working with that farmer, I didn’t think white farmers were treated like black farmers were treated by the agency….There are a few of them who get treated like black farmers.”
For decades, black farmers have said the Agriculture Department unfairly denied them loans or took much longer to process their loans. A class-action lawsuit against the Department followed. Earlier this year, the Obama administration agreed to a $1.25 billion settlement.
Sherrod’s story, she says, was to argue that race shouldn’t matter.
“And they turned into saying that I’m a racist,” she said.
Was she at all racist? Did she discriminate on the basis of race?
The farmer in question says no.
“It never, never crossed my mind,” Roger Spooner told ABC News. “Never crossed my mind. Me and the wife, we never, we never, we never saw that at all. Absolutely. It’s unbelievable.”
Spooner told ABC News today that without Sherrod he would have lost the farm.
”If we had not found her, me and my wife -- we went checking here and yonder and everywhere -- if it hadn’t been for her, we’d of lost. It was just a matter of a few months and we would have lost it.”
On Tuesday evening, the NAACP posted a more complete video of Sherrod's remarks , and the longer version supports her story. The fuller video shows her telling the story about how the white lawyer to whom she introduced Spooner did little to help him, with Spooner calling her to tell her "the lawyer wasn't doing anything."
So Sherrod helped him. "Working with him made me see that it's really about those who have versus those who don't," she said. "You know, and that they could be black, they could be white, they could be Hispanic. And it made me realize then that I needed to work to help poor people, those who don't have access the way others have." "
The shorter clip of Sherrod speaking at the NAACP banquet aired in the context of various racially-charged debates in the last year.
Most recently, last week, the NAACP passed a resolution calling on the Tea Party movement to condemn racism within its ranks. Some conservatives argue that the Justice Department should never have dropped a voter intimidation lawsuit against members of the New Black Panther Party who stood outside a Philadelphia precinct in 2008. The Department says it pursued a more narrow charge against one of the Panthers, but no voter claiming to have experienced intimidation could be found in the largely black precinct.
Within the Department of Agriculture are even more heightened racial sensitivities, with lawsuits from black farmers, Hispanic farmers, and other groups alleging billions of dollars in unfairly denied USDA loans, rooted in racial discrimination.
On Monday, Agriculture Department officials notified Secretary Vilsack of Sherrod’s comments. She was originally put on administrative leave, then ultimately Vilsack decided the department should ask her to submit her resignation. Deputy undersecretary for rural development Cheryl Cook called Sherrod in her car and asked her to resign.
“I said, ‘Well, Cheryl, I’m on the road and I can’t deal with this until I get to Athens,’” Sherrod told ABC News. Cook called her repeatedly during her 3 ½ hour drive, ultimately telling Sherrod “’They want you to pull over to the side and send a message up here resigning.’” Sherrod pulled over and typed a resignation letter in her BlackBerry.
Did they understand the incident took place 24 years ago before she worked for the Department of Agriculture?
“I told them,” Sherrod told ABC News. “They didn’t care.”
Why do you think this incident happened?
“The NAACP got into an argument with the Tea Party people,” Sherrod said. “And I guess in their search for something, they saw where I spoke at the NAACP banquet and saw the statements I made and then cut it and did whatever they did to make it seem like it was something that just happened and that I was working for agency and was a racist.”
Monday evening Secretary Vilsack issued a statement saying: “Today, I accepted Ms. Sherrod’s resignation. There is zero tolerance for discrimination at USDA, and I strongly condemn any act of discrimination against any person. We have been working hard through the past 18 months to reverse the checkered civil rights history at the department and take the issue of fairness and equality very seriously.”
Of course, Sherrod’s story did not take place when she was at USDA, and there isn’t any evidence that she’d committed any “acts” of discrimination. Did Vilsack know that the incident in question was in 1986 at a different place of employment when he issued his statement? An official with the Department of Agriculture concedes that he didn’t, but insisted that didn’t matter since her telling of the story in 2010 was the real issue.
Vilsack issued another statement later on Tuesday, saying he’d “asked for and accepted Ms. Sherrod’s resignation for two reasons. First, for the past 18 months, we have been working to turn the page on the sordid civil rights record at USDA and this controversy could make it more difficult to move forward on correcting injustices. Second, state rural development directors make many decisions and are often called to use their discretion. The controversy surrounding her comments would create situations where her decisions, rightly or wrongly, would be called into question making it difficult for her to bring jobs to Georgia.”
On Monday night, NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous said in a statement that his organization concurred with Vilsack’s decision.
“Racism is about the abuse of power,” Jealous said. “Sherrod had it in her position at USDA. According to her remarks, she mistreated a white farmer in need of assistance because of his race. We are appalled by her actions… Her actions were shameful. While she went on to explain in the story that she ultimately realized her mistake, as well as the common predicament of working people of all races, she gave no indication she had attempted to right the wrong she had done to this man.”
On Tuesday Jealous said “with regard to the initial media coverage of the resignation of USDA official Shirley Sherrod, we have come to the conclusion we were snookered by Fox News and Tea Party Activist Andrew Breitbart into believing she had harmed white farmers because of racial bias. Having reviewed the full tape, spoken to Ms. Sherrod, and most importantly heard the testimony of the white farmers mentioned in this story, we now believe the organization that edited the documents did so with the intention of deceiving millions of Americans.”
Jealous called his about-face an example of a “teachable moment, for activists and for journalists…Next time we are confronted by a racial controversy broken by Fox News or their allies in the Tea Party like Mr. Breitbart, we will consider the source and be more deliberate in responding. The tape of Ms. Sherrod’s speech at an NAACP banquet was deliberately edited to create a false impression of racial bias, and to create a controversy where none existed. This just shows the lengths to which extremist elements will go to discredit legitimate opposition.”
He said that while NAACP officials understand “why Secretary Vilsack believes this false controversy will impede her ability to function in the role, we urge him to reconsider and give everyday Americans a chance to surprise him.”
Roger Spooner said he doesn’t “feel like she deserves losing her job. .. She needs her job back and I’d give her her job back in a minute.”
And what would he say to Sherrod if he could?
“First thing I’d do is hug her neck. And then I’d say, ‘I don’t believe this is happening. I don’t believe this is happening.’”
- Jake Tapper and Stephanie Smith
*This post has been updated.