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July 20th, 2010
10:00 AM ET

USDA employee says statements on white farmer misconstrued

(CNN) – A black Agriculture Department employee who resigned after a video clip showed her talking about a white farmer said Tuesday her remarks were taken out of context.

Shirley Sherrod, the department's former state director of rural development for Georgia, told CNN on Tuesday the incident she discusses in the clip took place more than two decades ago - and she recounted it to an audience to make the point that people should move beyond race.

"I was speaking to that group, like I've done many groups, and I tell them about a time when I thought the issue was race and race only," Sherrod told CNN's "American Morning" from her home in Albany, Georgia. The incident took place in 1986, while she worked for a nonprofit and before she worked for the USDA, she said. "I was telling the story of how working with him helped me to see the issue is not about race. It's about those who have versus those who do not have."

Sherrod resigned Monday after conservative media outlets aired the video, in which she says she did not give the white farmer "the full force of what I could do" to help him avoid foreclosure.

James Peterson, assistant professor of English and Africana Studies at Bucknell University, also joined Tuesday's American Morning to discuss Sherod's resignation. Peterson says this is especially ironic given the recent controversy surrounding the NAACP and the Tea Party. Although he condemns Sherrod’s statements, he believes that the video was likely taken out of context. Watch Video

Conservative website publisher Andrew Breitbart originally posted the video, which was quickly picked up by Fox News. The video claims Sherrod's remarks were delivered March 27 to an NAACP Freedom Fund banquet, but it is not clear that is the case, nor is it clear where the event was held or how many people were in attendance.

The poor-quality video shows Sherrod telling her audience that the farmer she was working with "took a long time ... trying to show me he was superior to me." As a result, she said, she "didn't give him the full force of what I could do. I did enough."

To prove she had done her job, she said, she took him to a white lawyer.

"I figured that if I take him to one of them, that his own kind would take care of him," she said.

Sherrod mentioned that the lawyer would help the farmer with a bankruptcy filing but did not say in the clip whether his farm was saved.

She told CNN that at the time, she was working with a nonprofit association aimed at assisting farmers in Georgia and the Southeast. In the end, she said, the lawyer did not help the farmer and she "had to frantically find a lawyer who would file a Chapter 11 to stop the foreclosure."

She said she, the farmer and his wife wound up being friends.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Monday he had accepted Sherrod's resignation.

"There is zero tolerance for discrimination at USDA, and I strongly condemn any act of discrimination against any person," Vilsack said. "We have been working hard through the past 18 months to reverse the checkered civil rights history at the department and take the issue of fairness and equality very seriously."

Sherrod told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution there were white people, including a mayor, at the banquet where she spoke. "Why would I do something racist if they were there?"

The NAACP issued a statement late Monday backing Vilsack's decision.

"Racism is about the abuse of power. Sherrod had it in her position at USDA. According to her remarks, she mistreated a white farmer in need of assistance because of his race," said Benjamin Todd Jealous, president and CEO of the civil rights group. "We are appalled by her actions, just as we are with abuses of power against farmers of color and female farmers."

"Her actions were shameful," Jealous continued. "While she went on to explain in the story that she ultimately realized her mistake, as well as the common predicament of working people of all races, she gave no indication she had attempted to right the wrong she had done to this man."

Sherrod said Tuesday that it was "unfortunate that the NAACP would make a statement without even checking to see what happened. This was 24 years ago, and I'm telling a story to try to unite people."

She said she tried to explain to USDA officials, "but for some reason, the stuff Fox and the Tea Party does is scaring the administration. I told them to get the whole tape and look at the whole tape and see how I tell people we have to get beyond race and work together."

Asked why did she resigned instead of fighting, Sherrod said, "I didn't have any support from USDA. What would I do?"

James Peterson, assistant professor of English and Africana studies at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, called the clip "a textbook case of institutional racism. Historically, it's been white against black, or white against whatever person of color is in question, but this is still institutional racism. We can't endorse it."

But he said, given later remarks made by Sherrod in the clip, "it's clear that this is an anecdote ... It is clear she is using this as an anecdote to talk about how she's progressed from this moment, and we can't let the weight of historical issues with race shape our individual issues.

"I think she is using this an anecdote to work through her own issues but also to show the audience we can move beyond and transcend some of these circumstances," he said.

Sherrod was appointed in July 2009 to serve as the rural development Georgia state director for USDA, according to a statement posted on the website of her former employer, the nonprofit Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund. She had worked for the federation since 1985, the statement said.

"We are proud that Shirley has been appointed to this position ... not just because she is the first African-American in Georgia to hold the post, but also because of her vast experience in agriculture and rural development," Ralph Paige, executive director of the nonprofit, said in the statement.

The conservative media outlets tied the video to the NAACP's recent resolution calling on the Tea Party movement to repudiate racist elements within it that have displayed such items as images of President Barack Obama with a bone through his nose and the White House with a lawn full of watermelons. The controversy has led one Tea Party group to oust another because of a blog posting by the second group's leader.

Tea Party Express leader Mark Williams posted on his blog a faux letter from NAACP president Benjamin Jealous to President Abraham Lincoln in which Williams ridicules the organization's use of "colored" in its historic name and uses multiple other stereotypes to bolster his point.

The National Tea Party Foundation expelled Williams' organization from its coalition as a result.

Filed under: Controversy • Exclusive • NAACP
soundoff (7 Responses)
  1. stan williams

    Thanks CNN for your diligent efforts in bringing this story to light and searching for the details into what really occured. I think that some reporters when researching a story need to be reminded in the words of a famous poet from the Rubaiyat:

    "The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
    Moves on: nor all your Piety nor Wit
    Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
    Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it"
    - Omar Khayyam

    July 21, 2010 at 3:06 pm |
  2. Bob H.

    Hi John,

    This incident, which appears to be a horribly unfair action against Ms Sharrad, is just another Obama Admisnistration decision that is Knee Jerk in it's origin and implementation. Rather than making mature, informed, reasoned and careful decisions...we see constant knee jerk responses. This began with emergency spending measures for the economy, continued to the forced votes on a health care bill that no one had read, continued to the "Beer Summit" and continued on with the drilling moratorium...which really only hurts the economy further Stop Mr. President...take a breath...get all the facts...get advice...think...then make a reasoned careful decision.

    July 21, 2010 at 8:29 am |
  3. T. Stuart

    The story here is that it's a non-story. Once again, so-called "news" networks, CNN included, picked up on this out-of-context, unsupported internet posting and ran with it as if it were "real" news. Those who present these things as facts are failing their audience, or purposely lying to bolster their point of view, i.e. Fox "News." Those of us who consume this stuff are forced to take all of it with more than one grain of salt. Or, preferably, turn it off.

    July 21, 2010 at 6:49 am |
  4. Jason charles

    I have seen the whole video, and it doesnt change my mind about her being fired. Who even knows if this white farmer is the guy she was really speaking of!?! I could bash a farmer then twenty four years later say oh no out of context im friends with him and I really helped him, then I could find a friend that happens to be a farmer and have him vouch for me. Obviously with her position she knows a lot of farmers. Point being she said how she was a racist, so who knows if this one certain farmer really changed her racist ways, and how many farmers before him she didnt help. And by hearing what she said im sure she chose to help more Black farmers then white. And she should be punished for her racialremarks, even if they were from twenty something years ago. If a person commits murder and admits it decades later they still get punished.

    If she really did change her nasty ways, then thats good. We all need to UNITE. But the fact is she did do wrong. And now nobody knows how she really is and cant be trusted in a managment position. Let this be a learning lesson to all races,Our world will not stand for prejudice. I applaud the NAACP for their quick reaction. Although Im a bit saddened that they retracted it so quickly.

    July 21, 2010 at 1:49 am |
  5. nancy

    "A black Agriculture Department employee who resigned after a video clip showed her talking about a white farmer said Tuesday her remarks were taken out of context."

    Yeah right. Let it be a white person saying that, fireworks every where. Geesh!!!!!

    July 20, 2010 at 11:30 am |
  6. Bill Emanuel

    The people that make a big deal over "perception" usually disregard facts!

    They generally have loud mouths that drown out truth or reality and any attempts to discover them. Ms. Sherrod was relating how she had discovered her own redemption at a time when racial dis-harmony was a true problem in American history. Through her own experience she tried to explain how she grew as a human being and through that enlightenment realized that the bottom line IS that we all need each other.

    But then Roland Martin spends more time talking out of both sides of his mouth defending perceptions rather than accepting the fact that Ms. Sherrod had grown as a human being through her own redemption.

    Score one for Roland! You have really advanced racial understanding. PERCEPTION HOGWASH

    July 20, 2010 at 11:17 am |
  7. jim O'H

    I can't believe that CNN actually appears to be supporting this racist woman AND, MORE IMPORTANTLY is ignoring the response of the NAACP audience. I would condemn any group, white or black or Asian that encouraged this kind of talk. CNN you are a big disappointment!

    July 20, 2010 at 10:40 am |