Shirley Sherrod is the former Georgia Director of Rural Development for the USDA. She has been an active advocate for civil rights across the United States since 1969.
Sherrod was born in 1948 in Baker County, Georgia. In 1965, when she was 17 years old, her father, Hosie Miller, a deacon at the local Baptist Church, was shot to death by a white farmer. No charges were returned against the shooter by an all-white grand jury. That same year she was among the first black students to enroll in the previously all-white high school in Baker County.
In 1969, Sherrod and her husband were among the U.S. civil rights and land collective activists co-founding New Communities, a collective farm in Southwest Georgia modeled on kibbutzim in Israel. According to scholarship by land trust activists Susan Witt and Robert Swann, New Communities' founding in 1969 by individuals such as the Sherrods connected to the Albany Movement served as a laboratory and model in a movement toward the development of Community Land Trusts throughout the U.S.: "The perseverance and foresight of that team in Georgia, motivated by the right of African-American farmers to farm land securely and affordably, initiated the CLT movement in this country."
Located in Lee County, Georgia, the 5,700-acre project was one of the largest tract of black-owned land in the U.S. The project soon encountered difficulties in the opposition of area white farmers, who accused participants of being communists, and also from segregationist Democratic Governor Lester Maddox, who prevented development funds for the project from entering the state. A drought in the 1970s and inability to get government loans led to the project's ultimate demise in 1985.
After Sherrod and her husband lost their farm when they were unable to secure USDA loans they became class action plaintiffs in the civil suit Pigford v. Glickman. The Department agreed to a settlement in which compensation was paid between January 1, 1981 and December 31, 1999, in "the largest civil rights settlement in history, with nearly $1 billion being paid to more than 16,000 victims."
A federal law passed in 2008 to allow up to 70,000 more claimants to qualify which included New Communities, the communal farm in which Sherrod and her husband had partnered. In 2009, chief arbitrator Michael Lewis ruled that the USDA had discriminated against New Communities by denying a loan to the operation and extending more favorable terms to white farmers. New Communities received a $12.8 million settlement that included $8.2 million in compensation for loss of farm land, $4.2 million for loss of income and $330,000 to Sherrod and her husband for "mental anguish".