Commentary: Sherrod saga offers a lesson in overcoming hate

The Charlotte ObserverJuly 23, 2010 

If it's possible to make lemonade from the sour lemons of the Shirley Sherrod affair, it might be this: Sherrod's insightful words about struggling with and overcoming racial animus, about not living with hate, and about looking beyond race to an understanding that "there's no difference between us" — that we must work together to help each other — are now accessible to a lot more people. It's a message many need to hear.

Of course, for the moment, the spotlight is riveted on the politics. The Obama administration is in full apology mode after Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack ousted Sherrod from her job as director of Rural Development in Georgia, mistakenly believing she had made racist remarks during a local NAACP banquet in March. Vilsack had seen a two-minute edited clip of the 43-minute speech Sherrod gave that was posted Monday by conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart on his website.

Vilsack apologized Wednesday and offered Sherrod a new job. The NAACP, which also had denounced Sherrod, has apologized too.

For his part, Breitbart stands by his posting, saying that it showed racism in the NAACP with people reacting to Sherrod's remarks with laughter. He did post a correction Thursday to his claim on the video that "while speaking at the NAACP Freedom Fund Banquet, Ms. Sherrod admits that in her federally appointed position overseeing a billion dollars, she discriminates against people due to their race." The correction said "the story [Sherrod] tells refers to actions she took before she held [her] federal position."

The political split and racial blame game that ensued from this flap are all too predictable — as it was in the controversy a week ago from a NAACP resolution charging racism in parts of the tea party movement. Many people have taken a side on these matters, and they aren't about to budge.

That brings me back to Shirley Sherrod and that speech, and the white farm family she talked about that the blogger tried to use to paint her as a racist. Despite the firestorm that consumed this story because of Sherrod's hasty and unfair ousting over a misleading video clip, the speech has lessons to teach. The whole video can be found at www.naacp.org/news/entry/video_sherrod/ It is worth the 40 or so minutes it takes to view it.

Sherrod began by stating her unwavering commitment to helping rural communities. But she admitted — to the audience's laughter — that after growing up on a Georgia farm her job was not the kind she'd envisioned. She had wanted to get as far away from the South as possible and did not want anything to do with agriculture.

Then she told the poignant story of her father. "Something is heavy on my heart," she said somberly. "Forty-five years ago today, my father was murdered by a white man. There were three witnesses to his murder" but no one was ever punished, she said.

The rural community near Albany, Ga., where she grew up was a place where segregation, discrimination and racist acts were a part of daily life.

To read the complete column, visit www.charlotteobserver.com.

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