Tuesday, July 27, 2010

What's Behind the Firing of Shirley Sherrod?: The Unresolved National Question and the Crisis of the Obama Administration

What’s Behind the Firing of Shirley Sherrod?: The Unresolved National
Question and the Crisis of the Obama Administration

Despite an apology and offer of reinstatement, underlying issues linger

By Abayomi Azikiwe
Editor, Pan-African News Wire

A political firestorm erupted on July 20 when United States Department
of Agriculture Rural Development Director for Georgia, Shirley
Sherrod, was unjustly terminated as result of false accusations made
against her by a right-wing propagandist. A deceptively edited video
of a speech delivered by Sherrod at an National Association for the
Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) event held in Georgia in March, was used as a pretext for her firing and public vilification.

The following day it was revealed that the videotape did not include
key elements of her address which highlighted the role of both race
and class in the oppression of African Americans in agricultural
sector in the South. Sherrod received apologies from both the NAACP
and the Obama administration who offered her a more prominent position as the USDA’s Deputy Director for Advocacy and Outreach.

Sherrod stated that she would need to seriously contemplate the offer
in light of her recent experience within the USDA. In a series of
interviews in the corporate media she pointed out the irony of the
administration and other detractors labeling her as a “racist” after
she had spent her entire adult life fighting discrimination against
African Americans in Georgia.

Although the Obama administration and the corporate media attempted to frame the controversy as a failure to check the veracity of the edited videotape of Sherrod’s speech, other underlying issues related to the ongoing plight of African American farmers and the failure of the White House and the U.S. Congress to seriously tackle racism was in actuality at the root of the political debacle. Despite the fact that the Obama administration came into office in 2009 with a clear mandate from the electorate to implement sweeping reforms within American society, the status quo has been maintained leaving the national and class oppression of people of color and the workers as a whole firmly intact.

The Sherrod Case and the Unresolved National Question in the South

During the 1950s and 1960s the African American people rose up in
opposition to the racism and national oppression that had been in
existence since the failure of Reconstruction during the immediate
period after the conclusion of the civil war. This movement, which
took on various forms in the struggle for civil rights and black
power, mobilized millions and shifted the consciousness of not only
African Americans but other oppressed national groups as well as

As a result of the civil rights and black power movements, significant
concessions were won from the ruling class. The Supreme Court in 1954 struck down the separate but equal ruling of 1896 in the Plessy v.
Ferguson case that officially overturned the rights of African
Americans granted by the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the

In 1957 the first Civil Rights Act was passed since 1875 which
provided legal options for challenging the disenfranchisement of
African Americans in large sections of the South. This concession came in the aftermath of the bus boycotts and other protest actions in
Montgomery, Alabama and other cities during 1955-56.

In 1957 the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) was formed under direction of the civil rights icon Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
That same year African American students in Little Rock, Arkansas
exposed the racist intransigence of the South when they attempted to
implement the 1954 Supreme Court ruling mandating the desegregation of public education.

In 1960 the student movement was born on the campuses of historically black colleges which led to the formation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in April of that year. SNCC became the vanguard organization of the civil rights movement through their work in the South aimed at eliminating legalized segregation and disenfranchisement.

Shirley Sherrod was impacted by developments in the South during this period. In 1965, at the age of 17, she became one the first African
American students to integrate the all-white Baker County High School
in rural southwest Georgia. In that same year she experienced a
traumatic event when her father, Hoise Miller, was murdered by a
racist white farmer.

According to Sherrod’s mother, Grace Miller, the murder of her husband stemmed from a dispute over three cows which had wondered onto the white man’s property from their farm. The white farmer insisted that the cows belonged to him. When Hoise Miller said that he would contact the local sheriff to resolve the disagreement, he was shot in the back while closing the gate and walking away from the white neighbor’s farm. (Atlanta Journal-Constitution, July 23)

Grace Miller said that there was never any arrest or indictment
against the white farmer who killed her husband. Miller said that
Sherrod was deeply wounded by the murder of her father and would often be “off by herself.” (Atlanta Journal-Constitution, July 23)

“One night she was outside,” Sherrod’s mother recalled. “The moon was shining. And it was going through her mind, what would she do? She decided she would stay in South Georgia and make a difference.”

Sherrod joined the civil rights struggle that was taking place in
southwest Georgia. She would attend Fort Valley State College and
Albany State University where she received a B.A. in sociology.

Sherrod eventually graduated from Antioch University in Yellow
Springs, Ohio with a M.A. in community development. During her tenure at Fort Valley State College, a racist mob of 40 white men burned a cross in her family’s yard in Baker County.

Shirley Sherrod would marry a leading figure in the civil rights
movement, Charles Sherrod, who was an organizer for SNCC and a member of the organization’s cultural group, the Freedom Singers. Charles Sherrod had worked in the famous Albany Movement that represented one of the first mass mobilizations against racism in the deep South.

In the videotaped speech from March 2010, Sherrod said that “I want to do all I can to help rural communities be what they can. When I made that commitment, I was making that commitment to black people and to black people only…. But you know God will show you things and he’ll put things in your path that you realize that the struggle is really about poor people.”

In the early 1980s Sherrod’s 6,000-acre family farm was lost to
foreclosure. The farm was occupied by numerous other families where
they raised vegetables and livestock. Sherrod’s son Kenyatta, told the
Atlanta Journal-Constitution that “They lost the farm. Life was
different after that. We didn’t have a lot after that.”

Kenyatta Sherrod recounted how his parents had difficulty even in
paying utilities bills. “Early on, sometime after we lost our farm, I
caught her crying over the bills. We had a real low time after we lost
the farm.”

The Plight of African American Farmers Remain Unresolved

The saga of the family of Shirley Sherrod was not an isolated case.
Over the last century since 1910, African American farmers have loss
nearly 13 million acres of land due to the racist practices of the
USDA and financial institutions throughout the South. In 1920, one out
of seven farms were owned by African Americans, however, by 1992 black land ownership had dwindled from 15 million acres to 2.8 million.

African American farmers fought this wholesale theft of their land at
great risk. In 1988, the USDA was forced to admit as a result of a
class action lawsuit that “the history of discrimination at the U.S.
Department of Agriculture is well documented, not against white
farmers, but African-American, Native American and other minorities
who were pushed off their land by decades of racially-biased laws and
practices.” (Institute of Southern Studies, July 2010)

In 1999 the government agreed to compensate African American farmers through a settlement stemming from a law-suit involving 22,000
families. Nonetheless, the majority of the farmers never received the
promised $50,000, which was a pittance in regard to the vast losses of
individual families over a period of decades.

In 2009 the Obama administration agreed to pay $1.25 billion to settle
claims by African American farmers in a second settlement. However,
the U.S. Senate has failed to allocate the money for compensation to
the farmers. The struggle continues involving several African American
farmers’ organizations including the Federation of Southern
Cooperatives, the Black Farmers & Agriculturist Association and the
National Black Farmers Association.

Gary Grant of the 20,000-member Black Farmers & Agriculturists
Association summed up the sentiment of the African American farmers
when he said that “The statement from Tom Vilsack, Secretary of
Agriculture, that the USDA does not tolerate racial discrimination is
a complete lie. Talk to almost any family member of a black farmer or
check out the government’s documentation of how USDA employees, on the local and federal level discriminated against black farmers, in
particular. “(Institute of Southern Studies, July 2010)

Grant continued by pointing out that “nothing was ever done to
penalize the all white officials bent on destroying a society of black
farmers across the nation; not one firing, not one charge brought, and
not one pension lost. Yet the first erroneous offering by a
conservative blogger that a black woman from USDA might have
discriminated, she is immediately forced to resign.”

The Shirley Sherrod incident reveals that even with an African
American president in the White House conditions will not improve
until the structures of U.S. capitalism and racism are fundamentally
changed. There can be no resolution of the national oppression of
African Americans without uprooting the present system and instituting
the genuine empowerment of people of color and working people as a
whole in the United States.

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