is more than a headline. The life of the former and maybe future U.S. Department of Agriculture official, who went from sinner to saint in the space of a news cycle, puts meat on the bones of her tape-recorded tale of redemption and reconciliation.
On Thursday, she was offered another apology in what's becoming a long list. President Barack Obama
"expressed to Ms. Sherrod his regret about the events of the last several days," according to a White House statement. That would be when an edited tape released by a conservative blogger branded Sherrod, 62, a racist. The unedited version of her March speech at an NAACP event -- recounting an incident from more than 20 years ago when she worked for a nonprofit agency -- revealed how she learned justice has no color when she worked on behalf of a struggling white family farmer.
She already knew a lot about farming and the search for justice.
Shirley Miller Sherrod grew up on a farm in Baker County, Georgia, where, as she told CNN
, "I would talk to the sun as I picked cotton and picked cucumbers and worked out there in that hot field, and [say], 'This is not the life for me.'"
But in 1965, when her father, Hosie Miller, a deacon at Thankful Baptist Church, was shot by a white farmer in a dispute over livestock and an all-white grand jury decided not to bring charges, the 17-year-old Sherrod decided to remain in the South and work to make things better. She told CNN that when she and several other blacks went to the county courthouse to register to vote that summer, the sheriff pushed her future husband down the stairs. They used the incident to get a restraining order against the sheriff, she said.
Sherrod attended Albany State University in Georgia, earned her master's degree in community development from Antioch University in Yellow Springs, Ohio, and worked for civil rights with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) Southwest Georgia Project. Former NAACP chairman and civil rights leader Julian Bond told The Washington Post
of her family's history in the movement.
Sherrod co-founded New Communities Inc., a black communal farm project in Lee County, Georgia, after college. Sherrod told CNN that local white farmers who opposed the 6,000-acre farm fired shots at their buildings. New Communities eventually lost the property after failing to receive government loans in a timely manner, and Sherrod began working with the nonprofit Federation of Southern Cooperatives, developing a program of outreach, education and technical assistance for family farmers in need, according to a speaker's bio
That's when she worked to help Roger and Eloise Spooner, the white farmers in her speech, to keep their land. She also began working with singer Willie Nelson
through his Farm Aid project. On the Huffington Post, Nelson wrote: "She has had an amazing impact on the lives and livelihoods of hundreds of families and communities throughout the South. Farmers of every race have struggled with the income inequities that have persisted for generations, and advocates like Ms. Sherrod have moved mountains to ensure that families can remain in their homes and on their farms."
Before the USDA hired her in 2009 as its Georgia director of rural development, she had sued the agency on behalf of black farmers discriminated against in the 1980s and 1990s and helped to win a settlement decree. New Communities won a portion of the settlement, including $330,000 to the Sherrods for pain and suffering. Minority farmers
are still rallying for portions of the settlement to be paid.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack
, who fired Sherrod, said at his Wednesday press conference: "For the last 18 months we have really focused on trying to address the longstanding history of civil rights claims against the Department [of Agriculture]. They are outstanding claims brought by black farmers, Hispanic farmers, women farmers, Native American farmers. And these are not just a few incidences, or a few isolated claims. These are tens of thousands of claims. I made it a goal that we would try to reverse that history, we would try to close that chapter, [and that we] would not tolerate in any way, shape or form discrimination. I still hold that belief very firmly."
In explaining that he had offered Sherrod a better job at the agency, Vilsack said that her history of battling discriminatory practices at USDA gave her a unique perspective.
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