WASHINGTON — The White House did a sudden about-face Wednesday and begged for forgiveness from the black Agriculture Department employee whose ouster ignited an embarrassing political firestorm over race. She was offered a "unique opportunity" for a new job and said she was thinking it over.
With lightning speed, the controversy moved from Monday's forced resignation of a minor U.S. Ag official in Georgia to Tuesday's urgent discussions at the White House amid a rising public outcry and then to Wednesday's repeated apologies and pleas for Shirley Sherrod to come back.
Sherrod said she resigned under White House pressure after the airing of a video of racial remarks she made at an NAACP gathering about events that transpired more than two decades ago. But Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said repeatedly on Wednesday that the decision had been his alone.
"I asked for Shirley's forgiveness and she was gracious enough to extend it to me," he said after reaching her by telephone.
Sherrod, in a phone interview with The Associated Press, said, "They did make an offer. I just told him I need to think about it."
The controversy threatened to grow into more than a three-day distraction for Obama's administration, with important midterm congressional elections nearing and partisan feelings already running high. President Barack Obama said nothing publicly about the developments while administration officials tried to simultaneously show his concern and to distance him from the original ousting.
It all began with the airing of a video on a conservative website of Sherrod's remarks about not doing all she could to help a white farmer. After she was told to resign – with the NAACP declaring its approval – the situation grew more complicated when the rest of the edited video was released by the NAACP and Sherrod insisted her remarks were about reconciliation, not the stoking of racism.
By Wednesday afternoon, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs was apologizing to Sherrod "for the entire administration" and saying that officials did not know all the facts when she was fired and should have investigated more. He said he didn't know if the president would talk to Sherrod himself.
The president had been briefed, Gibbs said, and "he talked about the fact that a disservice had been done, an injustice had happened and, because the facts had changed, a review of the decision based on those facts should be taken."
Said Vilsack, who also met with the Congressional Black Caucus, "This is a good woman. She's been put through hell. ... I could have done and should have done a better job."
"Shirley and I talked about a unique opportunity at USDA," he said. "With all that she has seen, endured and accomplished, it would be invaluable to have her experience, commitment and record of service at USDA. I hope she considers staying with the department."
"I accept the apology," Sherrod said on CNN after watching Gibbs talk to reporters on television. But she said the apology took too long.
Sherrod, appointed to her job last July, was asked to resign after conservative bloggers posted a video of her saying she didn't initially give a white farmer as much help as she could have 24 years ago, when she was working for a farmers' aid group. Sherrod said she used the story in her speech to the NAACP to promote racial reconciliation and that the edited video distorted her remarks.
Like the administration, the NAACP reversed its stance on Sherrod and called for her to be rehired.
The incident was the latest in a series of race-related brouhahas to garner national attention since Obama became the nation's first black chief executive.
A year ago, Obama convened a "beer summit" at the White House between a black Harvard scholar and the white police sergeant who arrested him after a confrontation at the black man's home. The president also faced criticism over nominating to the Supreme Court judge Sonia Sotomayor, who had once remarked on the virtues of having a "wise Latina" on the bench. And there are complaints about the Justice Department's handling of allegations that New Black Panther Party members threatened voters at a Philadelphia polling place on the day Obama was elected.
Black leaders piled on Wednesday in criticizing Sherrod's ouster. The Rev. Jesse Jackson called on the administration to apologize and give Sherrod her job back. The Congressional Black Caucus, with 42 members of Congress, called for Sherrod to be reinstated immediately.
However, the Rev. Al Sharpton said black leaders should refrain from calling for an apology from the Obama administration, saying that creates the impression that black leadership is fractured. "We are only greasing the rails for the right wing to run a train through our ambitions and goals for having civil and human rights in this country," Sharpton said.
The episode comes as the NAACP and the conservative tea party group have been trading charges of racism.
The two-minute, 38-second clip posted Monday by BigGovernment.com was presented as evidence that the NAACP was hypocritical in its recent resolution condemning what it calls racist elements of the tea party. The website's owner, Andrew Breitbart, said the video shows the civil rights group condoning the same kind of racism it says it wants to erase. BigGovernment.com is the same outfit that gained notice last year after airing video of workers at the community group ACORN counseling actors posing as a prostitute and her pimp.
In the clip posted on BigGovernment.com, Sherrod described 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 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."
The story moved from the Internet to Fox News Channel on Monday night. Host Bill O'Reilly showed a brief portion of Sherrod's speech where she talked about withhholding "the full force" of her efforts.
"Wow," O'Reilly said after the clip aired. "That is simply unacceptable and Ms. Sherrod must resign. The federal government cannot have skin color deciding any assistance." Fox's Sean Hannity aired the same short snippet of Sherrod's speech and said that "this was racist."
"This was at an NAACP dinner and this was racist," Hannity said.
By Wednesday, Fox's focus shifted to accusing the Obama administration of rushing to judgment.
People who knew Sherrod were quick to defend her, including the wife of the white farmer whom she discussed in the speech.
"We probably wouldn't have (our farm) today if it hadn't been for her leading us in the right direction," said Eloise Spooner of Iron City, Ga. "I wish she could get her job back because she was good to us, I tell you."
In the full 43-minute video, 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 officials showed no interest in listening to her explanation when she was asked to resign. She said she was on the road Monday when USDA deputy undersecretary Cheryl Cook called her and told her to pull over and submit her resignation on her Blackberry because the White House wanted her out.
"It hurts me that they didn't even try to attempt to see what is happening here, they didn't care," Sherrod said.
Full video posted by NAACP: http://tinyurl.com/23jqz95