A lot of words have already been spilled about Shirley Sherrod's firing by the Obama administration after a libelous report on a right-wing web site and Fox News. Now, with the perspective of a few days, it's time to put the incident into a larger framework and (no pun intended) call a spade a spade -- this was a high tech lynching, carried out by right-wing hatemongers and aided and abetted by liberal cowards.
If it weren't for unsung heroes like Shirley Sherrod, Barack Obama would never have become president. He doesn't just owe her a phone call, an apology and an offer of an important job where she can continue her lifelong work of helping poor family farmers of all races. He should be awarding her The Presidential Medal of Freedom.
What's most shameful about the Shirley Sherrod incident is not that the right-wing echo chamber would spread lies about a heroic African-American woman who has devoted her life to fighting for the rights of poor farmers, regardless of race. What else would you expect from media organizations who make their living stirring up white fear of black people? What's most shameful is that so-called liberals and progressives like the NAACP national office and the Obama administration would be so frightened of the right that they wouldn't wait even a single 24-hour cable news cycle to investigate whether Shirley Sherrod's hateful accusers were telling the truth, and instead jumped to condemn her and deprive her of her livelihood.
There used to be a time when liberals, progressive and civil rights leaders stood up to right-wing bullies like Andrew Breitbart and Fox News, fighting back, sometimes even risking their lives. No more, it seems. Today these chickensh*t liberals run for cover at the first sign of incoming fire from the rightwing media, abandoning fighters like Van Jones, thousands of poor anonymous ACORN members, and now Shirley Sherrod. They seem to have forgotten what every school kid learns on the playground -- If you don't stand up to bullies, you just encourage their continued bullying.
As it turns out, not only is Shirley Sherrod the kind of dedicated public servant who works quietly behind the scenes to serve the people. It also turns out the she has devoted a lifetime to fighting for the rights of poor rural farmers of all races without seeking credit or personal aggrandizement.
Here's some of what the Obama administration and the NAACP national office would have learned about Mrs. Sherrod if they'd taken a few days to investigate the facts instead of abandoning ship the moment the rightwing media attacked:
She grew up in rural Baker County, Georgia, which, prior to the Civil Rights Movement (including the activities of the NAACP) was one of the most segregated parts of the South where black people literally lived in terror that they could be murdered by white people without legal consequences. In fact, when Mrs. Sherrod was a 17-year old high school senior, a white farmer shot her father in the back and killed him; and an all-white grand jury refused to bring charges. If anything could a make a young black girl hate white people, that could. But it didn't.
Instead, shortly thereafter, Mrs. Sherrod joined other young black and white students in The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee whose members braved threats, jail, beatings and even death to lead voter registration drives, sit-ins, marches, and non-violent civil disobedience to bring equal rights to the segregated South. (During Mississippi Freedom Summer in 1964, SNCC workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner were tortured, murdered, and left to rot in a swamp, in an attempt to scare off other civil rights activists like Ms. Sherrod.)
She met and later married a young black minister named Charles Sherrod, SNCC's field director in Southwest Georgia, whom former NAACP Chairman Julian Bond called in The Washington Post "good, brave and courageous". (Full disclosure: I never met Charles Sherrod, but as a Jr. high school student at the time who helped raise support for the civil rights movement, I remember hearing Sherrod's name as one of the most courageous behind-the-scenes leaders of the Southern civil rights movement. My family was friends with Andrew Goodman's family and members of my wife's family were friends with Mickey Schwerner's family and she remembers having dinner at his house where he introduced her to black soul music. My father, a white man who grew up in a small segregated town in South Carolina, raised money for the civil rights movement and as a child I met people like Martin Luther King and SNCC godmother Ella Baker at our dinner table. So I take this kind of thing very personally.)
Shirley Sherrod and Charles Sherrod became leaders of the Albany Georgia Freedom Movement, which was later joined by Martin Luther King. When the Civil Rights Movement started to change, many of its leaders left the rural South to pursue opportunities in other parts of the country. But the Sherrods stayed. After African Americans finally got the right to vote, Charles Sherrod was elected to the Albany City Council. Today one of Albany's landmarks is Charles Sherrod Civil Rights Park.
When SNCC started to dissolve into factionalism, the Sherrods spent time on an Israeli kibbutz (hardly the kind of place alleged black racists would go) learning about cooperative farming. They returned to Georgia to help form New Communities, a 6,000 acre cooperative farm that for 15 years was the largest black-owned farming organization in the country. When drought finally struck, like many other black farmers, they were denied loans (that were often available to white farmers) by the US government and the farm went under.
After that Mrs. Sherrod went to work for the Southern Cooperative/Land Assistance Fund to which Roger and Eloise Spooner, the white farmers whom Fox and Breitbart accused Sherrod of discriminating against, came for assistance. Ms. Sherrod found Mr. and Mrs. Spooner a lawyer and helped save their land. Mr. Spooner told CNN, "I tell you what, I was never treated no better than Shirley".
In the meantime the Sherrods helped initiate a class action lawsuit against the US government for discrimination by denying loans to black family farmers. After a decade in court, a judge awarded the plaintiffs $13 million dollars. Most of the money went to a non-profit organization intended to buy back the land.
Now Republicans in Congress are holding up funding of a further $1.25 billion settlement with black farmers who were denied loans because of racial discrimination, which funding has been attached to supplemental funding bill for the War in Afghanistan. In an investigative report, Talking Points Memo intimates that the right-wing media may have leaked the edited Sherrod speech at this time in order help Republicans block Congressional funding of the settlement.
Liberals should learn a lesson from Shirley Sherrod's lifetime of quiet courage fighting behind the scenes for justice for poor farmers of all races. As one old friend of Mrs. Sherrod said in The Washington Post, "Shirley has shown that you don't have to be afraid. All you have to do is be right."
Not only should President Obama give Shirley Sherrod a Medal of Freedom and a meaningful job in his administration helping poor farmers. He should give Van Jones back his position helping generate green jobs. He should tell Congress that he'll veto any supplemental funding bill that pays to help poor farmers in Afghanistan but doesn't pay to help poor farmers in America. And then he should tell rightwing bullies like Fox News and Andrew Breitbart what lake to jump in and never again let his administration be intimidated by these peddlers of lies and hatred.