What Shirley Sherrod Was Really Saying

Before the next crazy controversy erupts on cable TV and in the blogosphere, take a moment to learn what is being said.

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I’ve been watching the Shirley Sherrod controversy unfold this week--she’s the former USDA official who was fired and then was offered her job back because of remarks she made at an NCAACP convention that were taken out of context, first on a blog and then on television. So I went online and got the transcript of her entire speech. Here’s a fascinating excerpt, a part that we did not hear about this week, about the death of her father at the hands of the KKK in South Georgia in 1965:

I told how I looked forward and I dreamt so much about moving north and from the farm, especially in the South, and I knew that after--on the night of my father's death, I felt I had to do something. I had to do something in answer to what had happened.

My father wasn't the first black person to be killed. He was a leader in the community. He wasn't the first to be killed by white men in the county. But I couldn't just let his death go without doing something in answer to what happened. I made the commitment on the night of my father's death, at the age of 17, that I would not leave the South, that I would stay in the South and devote my life to working for change. And I've been true to that commitment all of these 45 years ...

But two weeks after I went to school at Fort Valley, they called and told me that a bunch of white men had gathered outside of our home and burned the cross one night. Now, in the house was my mother, my four sisters, and my brother, who was born June 6--and this was September. That was all in that house that night. Well, my mother and one of my sisters went out on the porch. My mama had a gun. Another sister--you know some of this stuff, it's like movies, some of the stuff that happened through the years--I won't go into everything. I'll just tell you about this. One of my sisters got on the phone 'cause we had organized the movements starting June of '65, shortly, not long after my father's death.

That's how I met my husband. He wasn't from the North … He's from up south in Virginia. But anyway, my brother and my sisters got on the phone--they called other black men in the county. And it wasn't long before they had surrounded these white men. And they had to keep one young man from actually using his gun on one of them. You probably would have read about it had that happened that night. But they actually allowed those men to leave. ...

But I won't go into some of the other stuff that happened that night, but do know that my mother and my sister were out on the porch with a gun, and my mother said, "I see you and I know who you are." She recognized some of them. She'll tell you that she became the first black elected official in Baker County just 11 years later, and she is still serving you all. She's chair of the board of education and she's been serving almost 34 years ...

But when I ... made the commitment years ago ... I prayed about it that night and as our house filled with people I was back in one of the bedrooms praying and asking God to show me what I could do. I didn't have--the path wasn't laid out that night. I just made the decision that I would stay and work. And--And over the years things just happened.

Her speech is long; at times it veers into a stream-of-consciousness monologue, but it’s a window into the deep South over the last 40 years and one family’s commitment to changing it. She eventually got a college degree and a job with the Agriculture Department--even though, she said, “We think agriculture is a bad word--we think it's working in the fields” and goes on to cite the low number of African-American employees at USDA. There is the now-famous part where she talks about struggling with her own feelings toward a white farmer, and her realization that poverty and need should come before race. The end of the speech is a call for reconciliation and moving forward, and a wish that the NAACP audience had included white faces as well. Sherrod appeared today on MSNBC and talked about the specifics of what happened this week, but then talked about her past and why, if she can overcome her own feelings of prejudice, then the rest of us can, too. 

We owe it to Ms. Sherrod to read her entire speech and to listen to what she had to say. In fact, if more people had done that in the first place, this never would have happened. Before the next crazy controversy erupts on cable TV and in the blogosphere, take a moment to learn what she was trying to say.

Ms. Sherrod ended her speech to the NAACP with a quote: "Life is a grindstone, but whether it grinds us down or polishes us up depends on us.” I don’t think she’s going to let it grind her down. And she said that before all this had happened this week.