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Father's death turning point in Sherrod's life

Photo by Laura Williams

Photo by Laura Williams

ATLANTA, Ga. -- Forty-five years before she became the central figure in a racial firestorm between the White House and the political right, Shirley Sherrod was a black 17-year-old in rural Georgia brimming with righteous anger over her father's shooting death. She blamed a white neighbor squabbling over some cows, but the law did nothing.

She vowed the night her father died to commit herself to helping black people, who she would later say were "facing the devil." By the 1970s she and her husband had led other black families in creating a sprawling communal farm, an effort that failed in part because of federal discrimination.

By the mid-1980s the Albany, Ga., woman was working for a group devoted to keeping black-owned farms afloat when a white farmer walked in seeking help. That moment marked the beginning of a change in her views about race, she said years later in a videotaped speech -- a speech that caused the uproar this week after a conservative website posted a snippet with important context removed.

Forced on Monday to resign as the U.S. Department of Agriculture director of rural development in Georgia, Sherrod received an apology from Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on Wednesday and a phone call from President Obama on Thursday after her full speech was widely disseminated. Vilsack offered her a new job, but she had not decided Thursday whether to accept it.

Juanita H. Gardner, an educator and civil-rights activist who met Sherrod during the 1960s, said it is no surprise that Sherrod's views on race took time to change.

"We were brought up in a segregated society," Gardner said. "Went to segregated schools. But we learned that we can change. Her father and mother taught her that. And they taught her that she was somebody and that she was worth something."

Sherrod, 62, grew up in her family's farm in Baker County, an isolated Southwest Georgia rural community where her family grew crops and raised cows alongside white neighbors. She remembers her father, Hosie Miller, sometimes argued with a white neighbor over cows that wandered into her family's pasture.

She said that one day in 1965, the neighbor went to their place and claimed that six or seven of the cows in their pasture were his. When her father told the man they could settle the argument in court, she said the neighbor shot her father dead.

Miller was 39. According to his death certificate, he died March 25, 1965, of a bullet wound that penetrated his chest, abdomen and liver.

Sherrod said a grand jury declined to indict the neighbor. Local prosecutors said Thursday that court records on the case were not immediately available. The FBI did not immediately return requests for comment on the case.

"I made a decision that I just couldn't let what happened to my father go unanswered," she said in a 2001 Associated Press interview. "I couldn't go and kill the person who did it. But I could certainly devote my life to make sure that life was different for other black people, and also to make sure that my father would be remembered."

As she put it: "We were all facing the devil and had to support each other in those years."

She found a husband who felt much the same way. Charles Sherrod was the first field director for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the group responsible for sit-ins at segregated restaurants across the South in the 1960s.

"Her and Charles are really some of the architects of the New South," said the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who worked with the couple. He called Shirley Sherrod "a long-distance runner. She is as strong as she was 50 years ago."

The Sherrods began mapping out plans to gather the descendants of poor black sharecroppers to form a communal farm. They even journeyed to Israel to study the communal farms that had taken root there. By 1969 they had secured a land trust for thousands of acres that they would work with other black families. They called it New Communities.

At its height, about a dozen families lived full-time in the sprawling 5,700-acre community, one of the nation's largest black-owned tracts of land. They had a farmers market by the highway, a sugar cane mill that attracted visitors, a smokehouse on the side of the road that sold processed meat from the hogs they raised. They planted thousands of acres of corn, peanuts and soybeans.

Some were hostile to the project. Shirley Sherrod said local officials dragged their feet on helping her community get an emergency loan.

Then-Georgia Gov. Lester Maddox went so far as to call the place "Sharecropper City" and its founders "communists."

By 1975, New Communities was sputtering. A severe drought had damaged their crops, the volunteer labor they relied upon was flaky at best, and state and federal officials often ignored their appeals for loans for farming equipment or irrigation. When the money did come, it was often too little and too late for the harvesting season.

The members were forced to file for bankruptcy in 1985, but when federal agriculture officials admitted in 1997 to discriminatory practices against black farmers, Sherrod filed an appeal seeking to prove that members deserved financial damages due to discrimination.

Last year New Communities was awarded a $13 million settlement that included about $8.2 million for their land, $4.2 million for their loss of income and more than $300,000 in pain and suffering.

The same year New Communities went bankrupt, Sherrod began a new career, taking a job as director of the state field office for the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund. The nonprofit group helps family farms in the South, especially black-owned farms, stay afloat with a range of services.

That's where Sherrod was working when, a year later, the white farmer she spoke of in her now-famous speech walked in. It was the first time a white farmer sought her help.

"I was struggling with the fact that so many black people had lost their farmland, and here I was faced with helping a white person save their land," Sherrod said in the March speech at an NAACP meeting at her alma mater, Albany State University.

Sherrod said in the initial snippet posted on the conservative website BigGovernment.com that the farmer acted "superior" to her and that she "didn't give him the full force of what I could do." In the full speech she makes clear that she gave the farmer, Roger Spooner of Iron City, Ga., more help -- a point Spooner's wife has made strongly in interviews this week.

"She's good at the job," Eloise Spooner said Thursday. "She helped our family out tremendously. She's the one who kept us from losing everything."

Sherrod worked for decades for nonprofit agriculture groups before Obama appointed her to the federal job last year. She made a reference to past struggles when she took the job.

"God has a sense of humor. Now I oversee some of my former enemies," she said in a written statement at the time. "But I hold no grudge."

Friends in Georgia's agricultural community say they watched Sherrod go to great lengths to help all farmers.

"I've seen her help farmers, black and white, sit down and do business plans, then help them develop their business plans, then go with them to the federal office to write out a whole plan," said Jerry Pennick, a longtime friend who works for the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund. "And if they're denied, I've seen her go and take the leadership to appeal it with them."

In another part of Sherrod's speech left out of the initial video posting, she told the story of her father's slaying. She said she made a commitment to stay in the South the night he died, despite the dreams she had always had of leaving her rural town.

"When I made that commitment, I was making that commitment to black people and to black people only," she said. "But you know God will show you things and he'll put things in your path so that you realize that the struggle is really about poor people."