USDA official Shirley Sherrod's MN friends react to wild week

8:11 AM, Jul 23, 2010   |    comments
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  • Shirley Sherrod in Today Show appearance
  • Tim Sullivan reflects on work with Shirley Sherrod

MINNEAPOLIS -- A Twin Cities attorney, who has known embattled USDA official Shirley Sherrod for 20 years, said he watched in horror this week as she was falsely accused of racism and ousted from her government post.

President Obama personally apologized to Sherrod Thursday for the administration's rush to judgment, after a conservative blogger posted an out-of-context clip from a speech she gave to the NAACP.

"Anyone who knows Shirley Sherrod understands she's not even a regular person," Tim Sullivan, Sherrod's friend, told KARE. "She's a hero. She's a freedom fighter. She's always been about fighting poverty."

Sullivan, a national consultant on rural development and water, worked closely with Sherrod in the late 1980s and early 1990s and has stayed in touch with her.

"She's the model of what I'd like to be. She's goodness and selflessness," he said.

Sullivan, at the time, was a staff lawyer at the Farmers Legal Action Group and made several trips to Georgia to work with Sherrod, who was a leader at the Federation of Southern Cooperatives Land Assistance Fund.

Both non-profits worked to help small farmers save their land, and switch to more sustainable business models.

"We did a lot of training," he recalled, "Bringing black farmers together to tell them what their opportunities and options were, and to work with them to develop new markets."

The groups also investigated and exposed bias against black farmers in the local field offices where they applied for federal ag assistance and credits. The result was a class action lawsuit against the USDA that was eventually decided in the farmers' favor.

"What we found blatant racism in some of these USDA field offices in the south, and it was beyond incompetence and bad advice. It was malicious."

Sullivan said he'll never forget Sherrod's first-hand account of her father's slaying in the 1960's on her family's farm in Georgia.

"She said they whole family was eating dinner when the white farmer's next door came and grabbed two cows they claimed belong to them," Sullivan said.

"There was a tussle, and then one of the white farmers went to his pickup truck and got a shotgun and shot Shirley's father in front of the whole family."

It was that personal history that led Shirley Sherrod to say, during her speech to the NAACP, that she initially was not inclined to help white farmers who came to her in 1986 seeking aid.

At 10:18 a.m. Monday conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart posted only that part of the speech on his Big Government site, in an effort to prove his point that the NAACP is racist against white Americans. Other conservative sites, HotAir and Hoft, repeated his postings within the hour.

At 12:40 p.m. Fox Nation, the conservative website operated by FOX News, repeated the Breitbart post, accusing her of "discrimination caught on tape."

By then Sherrod had already been asked by her superiors to resign from her job as director of rural development in Georgia. One USDA administrator appeared to act out of fear, telling her in one telephone exchange that Breitbart's tape clip would be featured on Glen Beck's FOX program Monday.

Sherrod told NBC Tuesday she pleaded with her superiors to consider the full context of the speech, the fact that her entire message was about racial reconciliation.  Her point was that she had come to the realization that the real battle was against poverty, regardless of color.

"Working with him made me see that it's really about those who have versus those who don't, and they could be black, they could be black, they could be Hispanic," Sherrod is heard saying later in the full speech.

The NAACP called for Sherrod to step down at the time, but later the organization reversed itself when the full tape became available.

Throughout Monday night the Sherrod story dominated the discussion on Fox.  The networks veteran commentator Bill O'Reilly aired the Sherrod video on his program at 7:50 p.m. Monday, and denounced Sherrod's remarks, calling on her to resign.

Fifteen minutes later, at 8:04 p.m. fellow Fox personality Sean Hannity read a news alert that Sherrod had resigned and spoke about it on air to Newt Gingrich.

The NAACP called for Sherrod to step down at the time, but later the organization reversed itself when the full tape became available.

Breitbart said in his own defense that he never intended to make Sherrod the issue, but that he was trying to expose hypocrisy in NAACP because of it's accusations that the Tea Party is racist.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack appeared at White House press conference Wednesday to apologize to Sherrod, once the facts came to light.

"One of the lessons I learned is that these types of decisions require time. I didn't take the time. I should have," Vilsack, the former governor of Iowa said, "As a result, a good woman has gone through hell."

President Obama, in a phone conversation with Sherrod Thursday, offered her a new job in the administration that would involve eradicating bias in USDA field offices.  Sherrod, who appeared on every major TV and cable network Thursday, said she was weighing that decision.

Obama told ABC Vilsack "jumped the gun, partly because we now live in this media culture where something goes up on YouTube or a blog and everybody scrambles."

Tim Sullivan told KARE he hopes Sherrod accepts Obama's offer, because it would bring into focus many of the issues she has fought for throughout her career, including the disappearing small-scale family farms.

"If he actually puts her in a new position where she's responsible for working nationally with USDA to help them understand what their racial problems are, what their problems are with poor people, that would be the greatest thing in the world."

(Copyright 2010 by KARE. All Rights Reserved.)

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