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Sherrod ousted from USDA job over video

Photo by Casey Dixon

Photo by Casey Dixon

ALBANY, Ga. -- Shirley Sherrod says video comments she made about an incident 24 years ago were taken out of context. They also cost her her job as the first African American in charge of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural Development Program.

"They took a story I was telling from 24 years ago like it was recent," Sherrod told The Albany Herald on Tuesday morning. "Some of the things they do with black farmers they do with white farmers, and it took that incident for me to realize that.

"They called me racist, and I'm definitely not a racist. I run into so many people in Albany (who are proud of) the work I've done."

In the video, which runs under three minutes and appears to have been shot March 27 at a 20th annual Freedom Fund Banquet in Coffee County, Sherrod admits to the group, which responds with laughter at points in her comments about trying to make up her mind whether to help a white farmer she found offensive, that she did not do all she could for the farmer and sent him to a lawyer who was "one of his own kind" to help him.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement Tuesday that he had accepted the resignation of Shirley Sherrod, who officially began the USDA job last Aug. 17. Vilsack says the USDA has no tolerance for discrimination.

Sherrod said USDA officials told her the Obama administration wanted her resignation, finally telling her to pull her car over and submit it via her Blackberry, which she did. USDA officials, however, say its was Vilsack's decision alone and that Sherrod willingly resigned.

The NAACP, which initially condemned Sherrod's remarks and supported Sherrod's ouster, joined the calls for her later in Tuesday to keep her job. The civil rights group said it and millions of others were duped by a conservative website that posted partial video of her speech on Monday.

"We have come to the conclusion we were snookered ... into believing she had harmed white farmers because of racial bias," said the statement from NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous.

Asked to comment Tuesday morning at the Albany City Commission's work session, Mayor Willie Adams said he doesn't believe Sherrod, a well-known civil rights worker, is racist and that she was perhaps caught up in the moment while making a speech.

"I think she did the right thing (by resigning)," Adams said. "If she made inappropriate comments as a government employee, then she should resign. What's good for the goose is good for the gander."

In the video, which can be found on YouTube, Sherrod recounts an episode in which she was "struggling" with the idea of helping the white farmer, who she said was talkative and "acting superior" to her while at the same time seeking her help. As she recounted her struggle over what to do, laughter can be heard from the audience.

"So," she said, "I didn't give him the full force of what I could do."

In Sherrod's taped remarks, she said she decided to do "enough" so that the farmer would tell USDA or Georgia Department of Agriculture officials that she had helped him, then she referred him to a white lawyer. "I figured if I'd take him to one of them, that his own kind would take care of him," she says in the video.

Later in the video, she says, "That's when it was revealed to me that, y'all, it's about the poor versus those who have. It's not so much about white -- it is about white and black, but it is not -- it opened my eyes because I took him to one of his own."

The farmer in the video is reportedly Roger Spooner of Iron City. "We probably wouldn't have (our farm) today if it hadn't been for her leading us in the right direction," his wife, Eloise Spooner, told The Associated Press on Wednesday. "I wish she could get her job back because she was good to us, I tell you."

Attempts by The Albany Herald to contact the Spooners Wednesday afternoon were unsuccessful.

The video states it was sponsored "commercial free" by the Coffee County chapter of the NAACP. It apparently was broadcast on a local access cable TV channel in Douglas.

Sherrod has served as director of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives and the Southwest Georgia Food Alliance, and has been a civil rights leader in Southwest Georgia, along with her husband, former Albany city commissioner Charles Sherrod.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.