When Shirley Sherrod Was First Wronged by the USDA

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Right: Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP

It was 1985, 20 years after her father was murdered by a white man who was never prosecuted, and the nearly 6,000-acre collective farm she had helped form in the early 1970s to create a sort of African-American utopia in the midst of Georgia's white farming community was going under. Governor Lester Maddox, a segregationist, called the tract of land "Sharecropper City," and refused to sign off on a grant that could have helped the families who owned the farm stay afloat. They had applied for loans from the Department of Agriculture's Farmers Home Administration, but often they were turned down or approved late in the crop season, delaying planting and harvesting, to devastating economic effect. The USDA would not let the collective restructure loans or take over the land and lease it back, as had been done for other farmers. Eventually, the land was sold to a white businessman and later turned into subdivisions.

Back then, local USDA offices with power over loans were run by whites, and it took three times as long, on average, to process loan applications from black farmers as it did for whites. The Reagan Administration had shuttered the civil rights division in the USDA, which meant that complaints about discrimination were routinely discarded or thrown in drawers even as black ownership of farmland was on a steep decline. The failure of New Communities was so emotionally devastating to its participants that Shirley Sherrod's husband Charles later told the Washington Post, "For two years after all this happened, I wouldn't even talk about it. Couldn't talk about it, it hurt so much."

It was later that same year, with New Communities dead, in the heart of a farm community that still favored whites over blacks, with the USDA known as the "last plantation," that Sherrod was tasked with helping Eloise and Roger Spooner save their farm. As she recounted many years later in a now widely viewed speech, Sherrod, by then working at a nonprofit organization that assisted farmers in danger of losing their farms, did not feel particularly motivated to help the Spooners, a white couple. Eventually, as any viewing of the entire speech makes clear, Sherrod changed her mind. She did help the couple, with whom she has remained friendly, and the experience became a turning point in her life when she learned to see beyond skin color and sought to work with blacks and whites battling to save small family farms that were shuttering by the thousands.

But while Sherrod may have become close friends with the Spooners and begun a new phase of her life, she did not let the USDA off the hook. New Communities became part of a massive class-action lawsuit against the department that was initially settled in 1999, reopened in 2008 and continues to pay claims for thousands of black farmers found to have been ignored, dismissed or mistreated by the USDA in the 1980s and 1990s. Out of about $1 billion paid out so far — reportedly the biggest civil rights settlement in history — the largest amount went to New Communities, which got some $13 million, with $330,000 awarded to Shirley and Charles Sherrod for mental suffering alone. "Thirteen million sounds like a lot, but it was not nearly enough. The land itself is probably worth at least $9 million," says the lawyer for New Communities, Rose Sanders (also known as Faya Toure).

In a passionate recounting of the events leading up to the settlement, the federal judge who decided it in 1999, Paul Friedman, wrote in his decision that "the USDA and all of the structures it has put in place have been and continue to be fundamentally hostile to the African American farmer."

It must have seemed ironic then, or perhaps even redemptive, for Sherrod when she was hired by the USDA in May 2009. The very behemoth she had battled for decades had chosen her to lead its Office of Rural Development in Georgia. "We're very proud of her and were delighted when she got the job at USDA," says Starry Krueger, president of the Rural Development Leadership Network, whose mission includes helping people living in poor rural areas earn advanced degrees and where Sherrod was a board member. (The official White House announcement of Sherrod's appointment did not mention her involvement in the class-action lawsuit.) It must have seemed even more ironic, and certainly cruel, when she was hastily sacked after a conservative blogger touted a short clip of her speech about the Spooners cut to make it seem as though she had proudly denied them help in an instance of reverse discrimination. This wrong was righted much faster — once the full context of Sherrod's parable about the Spooners became available, President Obama and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack both personally apologized to Sherrod. She has been offered a new job and is considering whether to accept it. (Attempts to reach Sherrod Thursday were unsuccessful.)

The White House has insisted it had nothing to do with the decisionmaking process before the firing, which might have stung Sherrod almost as much as the firing itself. After all, as a Senator Obama had championed the black farmers' lawsuit against the USDA.

Along with Republican Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa, Obama introduced legislation to reopen the case (that was initially settled in 1999) to allow more black farmers to join and to provide more funding to settle claims. The legislative language was added to the Farm Bill passed in 2008 and its inclusion led to a second Administration-negotiated settlement in February of this year for $1.15 billion. Yet the money to actually fund that settlement must be approved by Congress, and so far the House and Senate have only been able to vote for it as part of different pieces of legislation. The money will not be appropriated unless both chambers vote on a single bill that includes the funding.

John Boyd, a Virginia farmer and founder and president of the National Black Farmers Association, told CNN in May he believes Obama is not pushing Congress hard enough to appropriate the money. He says the Administration is fearful of appearing to favor blacks and black causes over others, criticism that has been lobbed at the White House in recent days because of Sherrod's abrupt and misguided firing. Of the $1.15 billion funding request awaiting congressional action, Boyd has said, "I do think the Administration doesn't take it head-on because it is solely a black issue." On Thursday, with his hay growing and his soybeans already planted back in Virginia, Boyd was on Capitol Hill, lobbying Congress to approve the appropriation. He has already received what he describes as a "sizeable" settlement and continues the effort on behalf of others. He has organized protests in front of the USDA building in Washington to draw attention to his cause, and had hoped the legislative language required could be passed this week as an add-on to the unemployment bill. It was not. "We continue to push because so many black farmers have been treated so badly by the government," said Boyd.