10 Questions for Shirley Sherrod
Sherrod talks about her new book, losing her job, and why, despite everything, she is still voting for Obama
Two years ago, Shirley Sherrod was forced to leave her job as the USDA's Georgia director of rural development, after conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart ran video in which Sherrod appeared to be making racist remarks. It was ultimately shown that Sherrod's words were taken out of context. The Obama administration apologized and offered Sherrod a new position, which she refused. Now, in her new book "The Courage to Hope: How I Stood Up to the Politics of Fear," Sherrod tells her side of the story. She spoke with Loop 21 about the Breitbart incident, growing up in the segregated South, and how she thinks racism and President Obama's race played a part in her losing her job.
Loop 21: Why did you decide to write a book about your experience?
Shirley Sherrod: For years, I have talked about Baker County, Southwest Georgia, my father’s murder and my work. Without fail, everyone said I should write a book about my experiences. Until the events two years ago, I did not think I had the time because my work was a priority.
The blogger, Andrew Breitbart, literally changed my ability to continue my work in the way I had done for years. Suddenly, I did not have a job and my life and work were discussed, critiqued, praised and in some cases criticized by people I didn’t even know. As a result, I felt it was the right time to tell my story.
Loop 21: Why do you think the Obama Administration acted the way it did, basically forcing you out of a job without doing a proper investigation first? Do you think President Obama felt pressed to act quickly because of his race?
S.S.: Racism in the U.S. is a subject that has divided us for centuries. It is brings out the worse and best in this country. That has been the case throughout the history of black people in America. There were those who thought black people were human and should be treated like all other humans. On the other hand, there were those who thought black people were less than human and should be treated no better than chattel.
One hundred and fifty years after the end of slavery and after civil rights legislation dating back to 1875, you would think racism was a subject we can say we have dealt with and come to an understanding of, in this country. We have not. If not President Obama, certainly people around him thought the quickest way to deal with the problem that appeared to be “reverse racism,” was to quickly remove Shirley Sherrod.
I cannot speak to the reason why they chose to force me out without properly investigating the accusation. Only they can speak to that. I, too, would love to hear their explanation.
Loop 21: You say in your book, “I couldn’t help thinking that if Obama had grown up black in segregated Georgia, he would not have acted so precipitously.” Why do you say that? What would he have done differently if he’d grown up in segregated Georgia?
S.S.: Anyone growing up in the south, experiencing fully the impact of Jim Crow, segregation, and living in areas where the law existed only to keep black people “in their place,” would have been suspicious of the source and recognized the need to further investigate.
Loop 21: You quote your husband as having said, “The attack on my wife has opened up an avalanche of discussion on a tabooed subject –race.” Do you think there are more conversations we need to have about race in this country, and, if so, what do we need to discuss?
S.S.: Race is definitely one issue we need to discuss in this country. It is also the one issue we always seem reluctant to discuss. Racism is systemic and institutionalized in this country. My hope is that more conversations about race will take place and encourage actions that will enable us to get beyond the one thing that has divided us almost from before the founding of the United States of America. That one thing is racism.
Loop 21: How did you feel when you heard that Breitbart had died?
S.S.: I was shocked and my thoughts went immediately to his family – his children. I lost my father at an early age and I understood their pain.
Loop 21: You say you forgive him. How long did it take to come to that place of forgiveness, and how did you get there?
S.S: I cannot live with hate in my heart and I cannot move forward if the burden of not being able to forgive is with me each day. Forgiveness happened early in the process. It is the only way I can move forward to continue being able to help others as I have done for the past 47 years.
Loop 21: You say you grew up poor, but were never made to feel that way. Please say a little about what that means, and whether you think that there is a problem today with poor children growing up being made to feel that they are poor.
S.S.: I was fortunate to grow up in a family that did not allow us to simply accept where we were in life and always made us feel that whatever the dire circumstances, they do not define who or what we are. This attitude prevailed at home, at church and in our community. Perhaps, we are labeled as poor but that was someone else’s label. That is the message we need to instill in our children today. You define who you are.
Loop 21: Do you think you would have fared better with the whole Breitbart debacle if you’d been serving under a different president? Do you think there would have been a proper investigation, thereby allowing you to keep your job?
S.S.: It is easy to look back and think it could have or would have been different under a different president. Under a different president, I probably would not have had the job. I think the political climate in this country since President Obama was elected lends itself to quickly dealing with a “problem in order to prove that you will not tolerate any form of discrimination.” We are quick to judge and the news media is an enabler because, for the most part, it looks for sensationalism before facts.
Loop 21: Do you plan to vote for President Obama?
S.S.: Yes, I plan to vote for President Obama. He is the best choice and most qualified.
Loop 21: Often, after times of tribulation, people look back at incidents and see that those challenging times served a purpose. Would you say that happened for you in this case?
S.S.: I have had many challenging times throughout my years of work. Each has served a purpose, sometimes for the good and sometimes for the not so good. They became life lessons for me. I do not allow them to keep me from speaking the truth nor do I allow them to keep me from doing what I can to help others. Hopefully, this incident will be a lesson to others, especially young people, that you have to be willing to stand and fight for what you believe in, no matter who or what is against you – win or lose, you’ll definitely sleep better.