Commentary: A new 'Mockingbird' story

Bob Ray Sanders is a writer for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
Bob Ray Sanders is a writer for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. MCT

Harper Lee's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, is still required reading for many junior and senior high school students.

For several consecutive years, when the book was read by ninth-graders in the Birdville school district, I would go at the end of the literary unit to talk to the predominantly white students about real-life discrimination and racism.

Those sessions made for some enlightening and heartwarming discussions, for just as with viewing the world through the eyes of two youngsters in the book, the innocence and daring curiosity of those Birdville teenagers always gave me hope.

Of course, then I would come back to the real world of adults who had a way of shattering any confidence I had gained that one day we could get past this thing called race.

Set in a rural Alabama town in the mid-1930s, To Kill a Mockingbird tells a moving story about childhood adventures and fears, an innocent black man put on trial for rape and the middle-age lawyer (the children's father) who does the unthinkable by daring to defend a "Negro."

The book ought to be required reading, not just for schoolchildren, but every American — especially the radio talk show hosts, Fox News commentators, members of the current administration in Washington and, yes, leaders of the NAACP.

My attention is drawn to this story again because in the same month that the world celebrated the 50th anniversary of the book's publication in 1960, a story played out on the national stage that was so reminiscent of the themes in Lee's unforgettable tale.

A woman who has dedicated her adult life to serving others in her home state of Georgia found herself the center of a "high-tech lynching" (to use the term coined by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas), and the rush to judgment was so swift and damning that it reeked of those days in the Jim Crow South.

In the case of Shirley Sherrod, a worker with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, she was accused, judged, condemned and punished without a hearing.

"They were not interested in hearing the truth," she said. "No one wanted to hear the truth."

Sounds a lot like Tom Robinson, the innocent black character in Lee's novel who was on trial for his life.

Sherrod's crime had been that she was a "black racist," based on remarks she made last spring during a speech at an NAACP gathering in Georgia. Her accusers had taken a few seconds of her 43-minute speech, obviously out of context, and portrayed her as a racist who refused to help people because they were white.

The lynch mob, led by radio talk show host and Fox News personality Sean Hannity, didn't care about the truth. Hannity was on radio in the afternoon condemning Sherrod and the NAACP while promoting his television show to air later where he would continue his diatribe. His fellow partners in crime took up their broadcast ropes and joined in.

The head of the NAACP, afraid that his organization would be judged guilty by association, called for Sherrod to resign, and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack ordered her firing without an investigation or a face-to-face meeting. Sherrod was called on the phone in her car, told to pull over to the side of the road and submit her resignation using her portable technology.

This was a woman who had grown up in the rural South, who had been among the first to integrate her high school, had her father taken from her (shot by a white man) when she was 17 and who vowed then to remain in her home state to make a difference.

When her "back-story" from 24 years ago was understood and her entire speech had been heard, it was clear that her remarks were about reconciliation and forgiveness, not racism.

This is where her story differs from the classic book. Tom Robinson's jury was made up of poor white farmers who convicted him despite seeing the truth during the trial.

The irony in this modern-day version is that it was poor white farmers, whose farm Sherrod had helped save, who quickly came to her defense.

Sherrod's accusers, after throwing the rocks, tried to hide their hands and place the blame on the right-wing blogger Andrew Breitbart, who had provided the edited comments from the speech. They are all guilty in this tragic episode.

The Obama administration, which originally acted out of fear of being painted with the racism brush, has offered Sherrod another job, deputy director of the office of advocacy and outreach at the Agriculture Department. At this writing she had not decided whether to accept.

I hope she does take it.

You see, Sherrod is a mockingbird they weren't able to destroy. She has taken flight again, and there are many things -- hopeful, encouraging things -- that she could teach us all.


Bob Ray Sanders is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Readers may write to him at: 400 W. 7th Street, Fort Worth, Texas 76102, or via e-mail at bobray@star-telegram.com.

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