Instant news and the sad saga of Shirley Sherrod


Image by USDAgov via Flickr

I’ve been traveling so I’m just now fully focusing on the tawdry tale of Shirley Sherrod’s firing for utterly fabricated reasons.

That right-wing bloggers would totally twist and distort the words of someone, particularly a black public official, to score points and manipulate public opinion doesn’t surprise me. The Beck-Limbaugh school of despicable distortion has driven what passes for political dialogue on the Right in this country for a long time now.

But that a Democratic administration and the NAACP would buy this distortion hook, line and sinker without question, that a government official would be fired with no effort to inquire of her what the facts truly were — that’s a shocker.

A friend sent me an email today with the transcript of the speech that Shirley Sherrod actually gave. I won’t characterize it. You can read it yourself below. But as my friend, a well-respected retired journalist and journalism educator, writes: “Not until I read the full transcript of her remarks this morning … did I realize the depth of the injustice done to Sherrod. Not only was she not racist in the speech in question. She was the very opposite of racist – she was making the case, as a black woman, for the importance of not being racist, for seeing clearly the needs of all people. It is an eloquent and pretty amazing speech … That it was distorted in such cruel, mean ways that were blindly accepted is unbelievable.”

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has now offered Sherrod a new job. How sweet. In the meantime, I’d like to know who is asking these questions: (1) Why did no one talk to her before she was publicly humiliated and fired as the chief of the department’s rural development office in Georgia? (2) Why did no one ask to see the entire 45-minute speech these out-of-context remarks were drawn from? (3) Why are the Democratic Party and NAACP, of all people, so cowed by the demagogues running the blogosphere for the right?  (4) Why hasn’t Tom Vilsack been asked to resign as Secretary of Agriculture?  (5) Where is Barack Obama in all this?

In case you like me were traveling during this brouhaha, here’s a brief summary.  The uproar began, the Associated Press reports, “When the flame-throwing conservative website posted a two-and-a-half-minute video clip of Sherrod’s speech to a rural south Georgia NAACP banquet. The website’s owner, Andrew Breitbart, said it showed that the NAACP condones racist elements, just as the civil rights group accuses the tea party movement of doing.”

So how did the administration react to this “flame-throwing conservative website.”  Even before remarks taped by Bill O’Reilly calling for Sherrod’s resignation ran on Fox News Monday night, the Department of Agriculture had forced her resignation, The New York times reports.  It continues:

By Tuesday, Ms. Sherrod’s forced resignation was the talk of cable television news, and it was becoming clear that the Breitbart video clip had been taken out of context. After seeing the full video, the N.A.A.C.P., which had initially applauded Ms. Sherrod’s resignation, had reversed itself, saying it had been ‘snookered’ into believing she had been acting with racial bias.

But what appears to have really happened is that the White House and NAACP had panicked. Sherrod gave her speech in March. Yet in the idiotic, red-hot, every-second-counts environment to which news and politics pander today — and I don’t use that word lightly — everyone seemed to have been scrambling desperately to control damage rather than to gather facts.

Noted a Times editorial: “The administration’s haste to fire Ms. Sherrod was unfair and unseemly. She told of how an agriculture under secretary phoned her to demand she resign instantly via her BlackBerry. The official anxiously cited the likelihood the furor would ‘be on Glenn Beck tonight.'”

I don’t know Shirley Sherrod. But she certainly sounds like a good woman to me. Notes The Times:

The full video of Ms. Sherrod’s March speech to an N.A.A.C.P. gathering in Douglas, Ga., shows that it was a consciousness-raising story. Ms. Sherrod’s father was murdered in 1965 by white men who were never indicted; she spoke about how in response, she vowed to stay in the South and work for change. She married the Rev. Charles Sherrod, a civil rights leader and cofounder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

Later, as director of a nonprofit group in Georgia formed to help black farmers, long before she went to work for the Agriculture Department, Ms. Sherrod received a request to help a white farm couple, Roger and Eloise Spooner, and she confessed in the speech that the request had given her pause. She did help them, however, and as the fracas over her firing became public this week, the Spooners came to her defense …

Given her background and a roomful of people who heard her original speech, how could top officials in the executive branch of the U.S. government act so hastily and so ignorantly?  And will they learn anything the next time red-hot, manipulative spin passes itself off as news on the blogosphere?  I wonder.

But the world of the Web has its strengths. You can be your own judge. Here are Sherrod’s words, posted on Salon by Editor-in-Chief Joan Walsh.  And here is how Sherrod, the woman fired for supposedly racist remarks, ended her speech.

I’ve come to realize that we have to work together and — you know, it’s sad that we don’t have a room full of white and blacks here tonight ’cause we have to overcome the divisions that we have. We have to get to the point as Toni Morrison said race exists but it doesn’t matter. We have to work just as hard — I know it’s — you know, that division is still here, but our communities are not going to thrive — you know, our children won’t have the communities that they need to be able to stay in and live in and have a good life if we can’t figure this out, you all. White people, black people, Hispanic people, we all have to do our part to make our communities a safe place, a healthy place, a good environment.


About jerrylanson

I teach, write, coach and sing, though you're not required to listen to the latter. I'm a journalism professor at Emerson College in Boston. My third book, "Writing for Others, Writing for Ourselves," was published in November by Rowman & Littlefield Publishing. You can read a sample chapter at My passions are politics (generally liberal in outlook), music, mountains, golden retrievers and my grandchildren, though not in that order. Please stop by and mix it up with me. I always answer those who post.
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