WASHINGTON — The Obama administration is standing by its quick decision to oust a black Agriculture Department employee over racially tinged remarks at an NAACP banquet in Georgia, despite evidence that her remarks were misconstrued and growing calls for USDA to reconsider.
Shirley Sherrod, who until Tuesday was the Agriculture Department's director of rural development in Georgia, says the administration caved to political pressure by pushing her to resign for saying that she didn't give a white farmer as much help as she could have 24 years ago when she worked for a nonprofit group.
Sherrod says her remarks, delivered in March at a local NAACP banquet in Georgia, were part of a story about racial reconciliation, not racism. The white farming family that was the subject of the story stood by Sherrod and said she should keep her job.
"We probably wouldn't have (our farm) today if it hadn't been for her leading us in the right direction," said Eloise Spooner, the wife of farmer Roger Spooner of Iron City, Ga. "I wish she could get her job back because she was good to us, I tell you."
The NAACP, which initially condemned Sherrod's remarks and supported Sherrod's ouster, joined the calls for her to keep her job. The civil rights group said it and millions of others were duped by the conservative website that posted partial video of her speech on Monday.
"We have come to the conclusion we were snookered ... into believing she had harmed white farmers because of racial bias," said the statement from NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous.
A White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said President Barack Obama was briefed on the matter after Sherrod's resignation and stands by the Agriculture Department's handling of it.
The website, biggovernment.com, gained fame last year after airing video of workers at the community group ACORN counseling actors posing as a prostitute and her boyfriend. It posted the Sherrod video as evidence that the NAACP, which recently passed a resolution condemning what it calls racist elements of the Tea Party, condones racism of its own.
Sherrod said she was on the road Monday when USDA deputy undersecretary Cheryl Cook called her and told her the White House wanted her to resign because her comments were generating a cable news controversy.
"They called me twice," she told The Associated Press in an interview. "The last time they asked me to pull over to the side of the road and submit my resignation on my Blackberry, and that's what I did."
Sherrod said administration officials weren't interested in hearing her explanation. "It hurts me that they didn't even try to attempt to see what is happening here, they didn't care," she said. "I'm not a racist ... Anyone who knows me knows that I'm for fairness."
The administration gave a different version of events.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack – not the White House – made the decision to ask Sherrod to resign, said USDA spokeswoman Chris Mather. She said Sherrod willingly resigned when asked.
In a statement, Vilsack said the controversy surrounding Sherrod's comments could, rightly or wrongly, cause people to question her decisions as a federal employee and lead to lingering doubts about civil rights at the agency, which has a troubled history of discrimination.
"There is zero tolerance for discrimination at USDA," Vilsack said. "We have a duty to ensure that when we provide services to the American people we do so in an equitable manner."
USDA is sensitive to the issue because the agency has for decades faced charges of discrimination against black farmers who said they could not get aid that routinely went to whites. The department agreed to a final $1.25 billion settlement earlier this year in a class-action suit that has been pending for more than a decade. The payout of that settlement is pending in Congress, and Vilsack has made fixing past wrongs over civil rights a top priority.
The current controversy began Monday when biggovernment.com posted a two-minute, 38-second video clip in which Sherrod describes the first time a white farmer came to her for help. It was 1986, and she worked for a nonprofit rural farm aid group. She said the farmer came in acting "superior" to her and that she debated how much help to give him.
"I was struggling with the fact that so many black people had lost their farmland, and here I was faced with helping a white person save their land," Sherrod said.
Initially, she said, "I didn't give him the full force of what I could do" and only gave him enough help to keep his case progressing. Eventually, she said, his situation "opened my eyes" that whites were struggling just like blacks, and helping farmers wasn't so much about race but was "about the poor versus those who have."
Sherrod said Tuesday the incomplete video appears to intentionally twist her message. She says she became close friends with the farmer and helped him for two years.
In the full 43-minute video of her speech released by the NAACP Tuesday evening, Sherrod tells the story of her father's death in 1965, saying he was killed by white men who were never charged. She says she made a commitment to stay in the South the night of her father's death, despite the dreams she had always had of leaving her rural town.
"When I made that commitment I was making that commitment to black people and to black people only," she said. "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."
Sherrod said in the speech that working with Spooner, who she does not name, changed her entire outlook.
"She's always been nice and polite and considerate. She was just a good person," Eloise Spooner said. "She did everything she could trying to help."