Sherrods recall civil rights work

Photo by Laura Williams

Photo by Laura Williams

ALBANY, Ga. -- Albany Civil Rights Institute and Museum Executive Director Lee Formwalt has always referred to the struggle for civil rights as "the long movement."

And two people who have played some of the longest roles in that movement were front and center as the ACRI hosted one of its largest fund-raising events of the year Friday.

Civil rights icons Charles and Shirley Sherrod shared their experiences before a large crowd gathered at the old Mt. Zion Church.

Sponsored by Mediacom and TV One, the program was moderated by April Ryan, commentator on TV One's Washington Watch with Roland Martin and White House correspondent for American Urban Radio Networks.

Charles Sherrod was a key member and organizer of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and was involved in civil rights in South Carolina and southwest Mississippi before arriving in southwest Georgia in 1961.

He was a major leader of efforts that led to the Albany Movement, a frontal assault on segregation in Albany. He led SNCC voter registration efforts throughout Southwest Georgia and met his future wife, Shirley Miller, while on a voter drive in Baker County.

Shirley Sherrod was thrust into the movement at the age of 17 after a white farmer shot her father to death in Baker County, reportedly in a dispute over livestock.

No charges were returned against the shooter by an all-white grand jury. This was a turning point in Shirley Sherrod's life and led her to feel that she should stay in the South to bring about change.

"I grew up scared of white folks," Charles Sherrod said. "In 1954 I had my first introduction to white people and I was surprised to find out that white people didn't know everything. After I got into the movement I had to revamp my opinion of the police.

"After I started getting arrested instead of looking to shake their hand I started looking for a gun in it."

When he arrived in Southwest Georgia in 1961, Charles Sherrod remembers how difficult it was to work with a frightened and cowed local black population during a voter registration effort.

"We were still just mere boys," he said. "I was the oldest one at 20, and we went house to house knocking on doors. What we learned was that the people were scared. And filled with that kind of fear, how were we going to get a man to stand up and look a white man in the eye and say 'you done me wrong?'

"You could cut their fear with a butcher knife."

Sherrod and his friends, then discovered the answer.

"The older folks were scared, but their children had no fear," he recalled. "And if you want to get black folks stirred up, mess with their children. Their children started getting arrested along with us. Then they'd come right back and get arrested again the next day.

"When that started happening the churches started filling up with angry people, then we began to see some movement."

Shirley Sherrod's advocacy work led to her appointment in 2009 as the first African American to serve as the Georgia State Director of Rural Development in the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

She was ousted from her USDA job last summer after conservative blogger Andrew Brietbart posted on biggovernment.com an edited video of her delivering a speech to an NAACP gathering that raised cries of racism.

The video set off a storm of controversy and criticism of Sherrod and forced her resignation. An unedited version of the video, however, revealed that parts of the edited video were taken out of context.

She recently filed suit against Brietbart.

"The USDA did nothing at all to help or come to my defense," Shirley Sherrod recalled. "No one in Washington would listen to me and I could not believe that they were not going to do anything at all to support me."

The sudden events also left a mark upon her husband.

"This wasn't a bump in the road, we're used to bumps in the road," he said. "This was a big gaping hole in the road."

And where do the two see race relations standing in America today?

"Maybe I'm wrong, but we seem to be slipping back a little," Shirley Sherrod said. "We seem to just be sweeping some stuff under the rug. If we think the race problem in America is fixed, then we're in for a rude awakening in the future."

Charles Sherrod agreed, but had a different take, saying the minority is becoming the majority.

"The problems still exist," he said. "And as long as we act like there are no problems it will keep us down. But I'm starting to see white folks getting dumped on too, and that's just as bad as it was for us.

"This isn't a black or white problem. It's everybody's problem."