ALBANY, Ga. — Shirley Sherrod’s taken on a number of roles in her lifetime: Farm worker, civil rights activist, mother, government official.
But even such a diverse lifetime of accomplishments did not prepare Sherrod for her latest title: published author.
Sherrod is listed as the primary author of the Atria Books release “The Courage to Hope: How I Stood Up to the Politics of Fear,” which is set for national release on Aug. 28. Sherrod wrote the book with Catherine Whitney, who has co-written more than 50 books on a wide range of political and social topics.
“I never saw this coming,” Sherrod said Tuesday as she prepared for a national book tour that will kick off Sept. 4 in Atlanta. “I always wanted people to know my father’s story; I didn’t ever want him to be forgotten. But I had no idea I’d be able to tell his story this way. I figured it would come out through my work.”
It was the racially charged death of Hosie Miller at the hands of a white Baker County farmer in 1965 that changed Sherrod’s life dramatically and set her on a path that would plant her in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement in Southwest Georgia and land her in the middle of a national firestorm in 2010 that led to her dismissal from the U.S. Department of Agriculture after a conservative blogger published a spliced part of a speech she made that appeared racist in tone.
“I lived through the segregation, the mistreatment of blacks, the hard work on the farm, and I wanted to get as far away from the South and the farm as I could,” Sherrod said Tuesday. “As I was approaching high school graduation, I was secretly applying to schools in the North, planning to get away from the South and never come back.
“But when my father was murdered (Miller died on March 25, 1965 after being shot 10 days earlier), I knew that as the oldest of five children — with another on the way — I was going to have to help my family. I remember clearly on the night of my father’s death, with all these people coming over to our house, going off into a room by myself and asking God for an answer. A calmness came over me, and I knew what I had to do.”
Three months later, the Civil Rights Movement came to Baker County and Sherrod joined the fight that would put her life in danger, lead her to the man who would become her husband and soul mate, and give her feelings of accomplishment nothing would ever match.
“We had the ‘Gator’ (Sheriff Warren “Gator” Johnson) in Baker County back then, and he certainly made our lives difficult,” Sherrod said. “I remember going to register to vote and being pushed out of the courthouse by the Gator, and when five carloads of us left Baker County to seek an injunction against him in Washington, he said, ‘If I’d known the way y’all were going, you never would have made it.’
“I met (husband) Charles Sherrod when he came down here with SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), and while I didn’t believe it then my sisters confirmed that during that first summer he saw a picture of me and said ‘I’m going to marry that girl’ before he’d even met me. My family had a cross burned in our yard, and some men came into the movement headquarters one day and tried to burn the place down with me inside. There was always danger, but it was the life we chose. We felt we were doing what was right and what was necessary.”
When blogger Andrew Breitbart published in 2010 an edited clip from a speech Shirley Sherrod made before an NAACP gathering and accused her of anti-white racism, the resulting outcry reached all the way to the White House. Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack initially asked Sherrod to resign, then rescinded his request after it became clear Breitbart had broadcast an edited clip whose content made it appear racist.
Sherrod refused to return to her position with USDA and eventually sued Breitbart.
“I think back on that time, and I was just doing my job to try and help rural communities, staying under the radar,” she said. “Then, out of the blue, I’m being vilified. I don’t know why they were targeting me. I tried to tell (officials at) USDA that the story I was telling was about helping white farmers, but no one would listen to me. I found out that the clip was going to be released five days before it went national and told them, but no one listened.
“They were perfectly willing to — for lack of a better term — throw me under the bus. I was so proud that during all that uproar, the Spooner family actually called in to say I had done everything I could to help them. I hadn’t had contact with them in 20 years, and they didn’t even know that they were the family I was talking about when telling the story (that Breitbart referenced). I’d been telling their story for 20 years.”
Sherrod will open her tour promoting “The Courage to Hope” with events in Atlanta Sept. 4 and 5. She will appear at Harlem’s Schaumburg Library in New York Sept. 12 and has stops planned for Newark, N.J.; Washington, D.C., and in Iowa and Pennsylvania.