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Shirley Sherrod Wasn't a Coward -- and She Paid the Price

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Attorney General Eric Holder said it plainly at a Department of Justice event celebrating Black History Month last year: "Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot, in things racial, we have always been and we, I believe, continue to be in too many ways essentially a nation of cowards."
He said that Americans -- and he was talking about all Americans -- are afraid to talk about race, adding that "certain subjects are off-limits and that to explore them risks at best embarrassment and at worst the questioning of one's character."
At the time, Holder's words were called "provocative" and "stinging." After the events of the last two days, a bruised Shirley Sherrod knows they're true.
At a March NAACP meeting, the Agriculture Department official honestly related her long-ago journey of redemption and reconciliation: A young woman -- raised on a Georgia farm -- was driven by the murder of her father by a white man to seek equality for African-Americans. She became a grown woman committed to justice for all. A white farmer in trouble helped open her eyes to see "It's not about race. It's about those who have and those who do not."
If you listen to the entire speech -- not just the heavily edited clip that first made the rounds and got her fired – Sherrod's tale unfolds like testimony you might hear at a Sunday morning church service, complete with encouraging call-and-response from the crowd.
That's an appropriate comparison since it wasn't just the farmer who paved Sherrod's way in her anecdote from more than two decades back. "God helped me to see that it's not just about black people," Sherrod said. "It's about poor people. And I've come a long way. I knew that I couldn't live with hate, you know."
The executive director of the nonprofit Sherrod worked for before being appointed to the USDA job in 2009 told CNN on Tuesday that there were never any claims of discrimination against her. "I can't praise Shirley enough," he said. "She holds no malice in her heart."
The white farmer and his wife – Roger and Eloise Spooner – promptly offered the proof of Sherrod's words, praising her for helping them keep their farm. They count her as a friend and, on CNN, Roger Spooner said the charges against the woman he calls "Miss Shirley" are "hogwash." They want her to get her job back, and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, in a press conference on Wednesday, apologized for his hasty action. "I asked for Shirley's forgiveness and she has been gracious enough to give it to me," he said. The "good woman," who was put through "hell," got a better job offer and is considering it. The White House earlier offered an apology.
Sherrod's personal story had a happy ending, if you don't count the being vilified and fired part. She went on to help farmers of every race, including the black farmers who lost their property after suffering documented instances of discrimination. Their much-more-common stories are lost in the rush to chase Sherrod's imagined anti-white actions. Then again, man-bites-dog always makes better copy.

More Shirley Sherrod Coverage:

- Shirley Sherrod Gets Apologies, Job Offer From Vilsack
- Transcript of White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs' Remarks on Shirley Sherrod
- Rising Clamor: Obama Should Reinstate Shirley Sherrod
- The Sad Tale of Shirley Sherrod: Vilsack Is the Villain
- Vilsack to Review Dismissal of USDA Official in 'Reverse Racism' Case
- RedState, NAACP Agree: Shirley Sherrod Got a Raw Deal
- Shirley Sherrod, Ousted USDA Official, Defended by Farmer She Helped, Others

But the world isn't made up of people like the three principals in this morality tale. Some in this country are living with something right now. If you don't want to call it hate (a pretty strong word), how about racial resentment? Discussion of race happens in capital letters, and reconciliation is the last thing on anyone's mind – try blame and finger-pointing instead. Think of the events of the past week or so, and you can see the truth of Holder's words.
An NAACP resolution asks the Tea Party movement to call out "racist elements" at its fringes and is promptly called "racist" itself, with a resolution from one Tea Party group questioning the civil-rights organization's tax-exempt status. Tea Party leader Mark Williams is cast out because of his cable TV rants and a letter to Lincoln labeling slavery a "great gig" for black people. Then, tit-for-tat, the edited Sherrod clip surfaces, the smoking gun of NAACP racism that proved to be a fantasy. It's as much a fantasy as the notion that the New Black Panther Party – a fringe hate group embroiled in a tangled voter intimidation case – represents anyone except a few dozen publicity-seeking malcontents.
Observing the cross-talk and counter-charges, something else becomes clear. With politicians leading the way, we believe the worst instead of the best of one another, whether it's a group, such as the NAACP or the Tea Party, or an individual like Shirley Sherrod.
If you only pay attention to recent headlines, you would think that Americans still live across a racial divide, when the truth is progress has been made. I remember certain places I couldn't go, barriers I couldn't cross because of the color of my skin. Today, my son is living in a country with an African-American president; he can't imagine that in a huge chunk of the country, his own parents' marriage would have been against the law until the late 1960s. (Thanks to the often-vilified federal government and Supreme Court, we could celebrate in my Maryland home instead of rushing off to D.C. for the ceremony.)
But any talk of post-racial America was obviously premature, if understandable. An America that struggled with slavery and legalized Jim Crow doesn't want to be bothered by sophisticated 21st century versions of division, fueled by economic uncertainty. The mere mention of "racism" is judged "racist," as though keeping a lid on anything will keep it from blowing. The election of a black president was a breakthrough. But few wanted to admit that with change comes anxiety and, sometimes, fear. Some of my white friends – who voted for and against President Obama -- have admitted an uneasiness that America is different from the country they grew up in. I don't accuse them. I admire their honesty and value that they trust me enough to open up. That's when the conversation starts.
Those conversations are rare, though. After the destruction of Shirley Sherrod, should anyone wonder why? The Obama administration has apologized to the wronged lady – nothing yet from the "news" organizations that pushed the edited clips -- but her life won't be the same.
Holder, in his prescient message, said: "Though race-related issues continue to occupy a significant portion of our political discussion, and though there remain many unresolved racial issues in this nation, we, average Americans, simply do not talk enough with each other about things racial."
We talk all right. Maybe the problem is -- no one is listening.

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5 Comments

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trb2244

I think we should celebrate Ms. Sherrod: a person honest enough to talk about her development as a thinking human being, a trip we all have to make. As for the rest of this, I am put in mind of the old Star Trek episode in which the last two persons on a planet were a man who was left-white and right-black and his opponent, right-white and left-black; naturally, they destroyed each other.

July 23 2010 at 11:49 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
Diane

Fox News purposely put edited film on Hannity and O'Reilly without investigating the film first. They slandered Ms. Sherrod and should apologize. Breitbart should also apologize and if they don't Sherrod should sue. She's got a good case.

July 21 2010 at 10:48 PM Report abuse -8 rate up rate down Reply
higgdj7

Fox now outsources misrepresentations/fake news???? Probably a legal move since they always get caught. Now they can claim innocence. What a joke

July 21 2010 at 6:57 PM Report abuse -14 rate up rate down Reply
greatbirdusa

Amazing how Fox or Conservatives or anyone else is to blame for what this administration does. Just like a spoiled little kid, Obama is always clean from blame -- we did it, not him! Amazing!

July 21 2010 at 5:36 PM Report abuse +18 rate up rate down Reply
andrc657

FOX NEWS needs to apologize for slandering Ms. Sherrod.

July 21 2010 at 5:21 PM Report abuse -14 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to andrc657's comment
wolfsonnydiane

erriccote Its not the same the naacp ask the tea party to rid itself of racist elements then the next day fringe menbers of the tea party were caught making verry racist comments fox news used a seriously edited tape to protray sherrod as a racist then implied that the obama adm. was racist Fox implied that the tape was current when it was not fox by its commentaters implied it had been checked to be facktual they ran this blatanly false stories and ther commentaters made blatantly false claims about Sherrod[not only fox was running this tape and only fox was implying racism.

July 21 2010 at 10:38 PM Report abuse -9 rate up rate down Reply
J.M.

ericccote, A hallmark of character and maturity is being able to acknowledge when one is wrong. When you compare the NAACP asking... not demanding... the Tea Party to marshal it's membership for overt hate speech to a woman relating a story of social redemption you are displaying a serious lack of grasp of the issue. Where's the comparison? Are you aware that Ms. Sherrod's father was murdered by the KKK? Her evolution from someone with every reason to be bigoted to transcendence above racial hate is nothing short of astounding! What does it say about a person or group of people who can rise above that kind of injustice, conquer their own anger and forgive those who are indifferent to their suffering? Anything short of that would be petty and small.

July 22 2010 at 10:01 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

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