By Abayomi Azikiwe
Editor, Pan-African News Wire
Published Jul 28, 2010 3:11 PM
A political firestorm erupted on July 20 when Shirley Sherrod, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s rural development director for Georgia, was terminated as the result of a false accusation made against her by a right-wing propagandist. A deceptively edited video of a speech, delivered by Sherrod at an NAACP event in March, was used as the pretense 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 the agricultural sector in the South. Sherrod received apologies from both the NAACP and the Obama administration, which 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 videotape, the root of the political debacle stems from the ongoing plight of African-American farmers and the failure of the White House and Congress to seriously tackle racism.
The Obama administration came into office with a clear mandate from the electorate to implement sweeping reforms within American society. However, the status quo has been maintained, leaving the national and class oppression of people of color and workers as a whole firmly intact.
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, which was attempted immediately after 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 African Americans, other oppressed national groups and whites.
Significant concessions were won from the ruling class as a result of these movements. The Supreme Court in 1954 struck down the separate but equal ruling in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case, which officially overturned the rights of African Americans granted by the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution.
In 1957 the first civil rights act since 1875 was passed, providing legal options to challenge 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, Ala., and other cities during 1955 and 1956.
In 1957 the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was formed, under direction of civil rights icon Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. That same year African-American students in Little Rock, Ark., 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, leading to the formation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee 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 of the first African-American students to integrate the all-white Baker County High School in rural southwest Georgia. That same year her father, Hosie 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 wandered onto the white man’s property from their farm. The white farmer insisted that the cows belonged to him; Hosie Miller said that he would contact the law. He was shot in the back while closing the gate of the white neighbor’s farm.
Grace Miller said that there was never any arrest or indictment against the white farmer who killed her spouse. Miller said that Sherrod was deeply wounded by her father’s murder 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 bachelor’s degree in sociology.
Sherrod eventually graduated from Antioch University in Yellow Springs, Ohio, with a master’s degree in community development. During her tenure at Fort Valley State College, a racist mob of 40 white men burned a cross on her family’s yard in Baker County, Ga.
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, one of the first mass mobilizations against racism in the Deep South.
In the videotaped speech, Sherrod said: “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 so 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, who raised vegetables and livestock there. Sherrod’s son Kenyatta told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “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 utility 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.”
Unresolved plight of African-American farmers
The saga of Shirley Sherrod’s family was not an isolated case. Since 1910, African-American farmers have lost 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 was 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. As a result of a class action lawsuit, in 1988 the USDA was forced to admit that “the history of discrimination by the U.S. Department of Agriculture ... is well documented. Discrimination has been a contributing factor in the dramatic decline of Black farmers over the last several decades.” (USDA National Commission on Small Farms report)
In 1999 the government agreed to compensate African-American farmers through a settlement stemming from a lawsuit involving 22,000 families. Nonetheless, the majority of the farmers never received the promised $50,000, which was a pittance compared 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 involves several African-American farmers’ organizations, including the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association, and the National Black Farmers Association.
A BFAA statement asserts: “The statement from Tom Vilsack, Secretary of Agriculture, that 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.” (July 21)
The statement notes: “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 the uprooting of the system and the genuine empowerment of people of color and working people as a whole in the U.S.
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