By now much of the nation has followed the story of former U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) official Shirley Sherrod, who was forced to resign from her post earlier this month after dishonestly being accused of racism in a March speech, only to be vindicated as soon as someone took the time to get a copy of what she actually said and allow the truth to come to light. But for those people who know Shirley and her husband, civil rights leader Charles Sherrod, the fact that the smears on her character were outrageous and false was never in doubt. It also was not a surprise to learn that the real message of Shirley Sherrod’s speech was actually something quite different and critically important: not just her own ability to overcome racially motivated attitudes, but her insistence on our need to work together to address the real division in our country—the one between the haves and have-nots in our wealthy nation that has devastating effects on poor people of every color.
Before she was appointed to the position as USDA Georgia State Director of Rural Development, Sherrod was a founder and key leader of the Southern Rural Black Women’s Initiative for Economic and Social Justice (SRBWI), which grew out of the Children’s Defense Fund’s Black Community Crusade for Children, the Federation of Community Controlled Child Care Centers of Alabama (FOCAL), and the Southwest Georgia Project for Community Education’s work in the South. She served as Georgia State Lead for SRBWI, where she helped promote the first human rights agenda in the United States aimed at eradicating historical race, class, cultural, religious, and gender barriers experienced by southern rural Black women. But as her colleagues at SRBWI point out, Sherrod has spent a lifetime fighting for economic and social justice for all people—something she pledged to do on the night her father was brutally murdered in 1965. In fact, the March speech at a local Georgia NAACP event from which her remarks were deliberately excerpted out of context was about how she came to make this her life’s mission.
As she opened her speech that evening, she noted it was the forty-fifth anniversary of her father’s funeral, and said, “He was a leader in the community. He wasn’t the first to be killed by white men in the county. But I couldn’t just let his death go without doing something in answer to what happened. I made the commitment on the night of my father’s death, at the age of 17, that I would not leave the South, that I would stay in the South and devote my life to working for change. And I’ve been true to that commitment all of these 45 years.” It’s a commitment she shares with her husband Charles, who was the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)’s first field secretary and a cofounder of the Albany Movement in Georgia during the civil rights era. He then earned a doctor of divinity degree from Union Theological Seminary before returning to Georgia to spend many years working with community organizations and serving on the Albany City Council.
Later, in one of the sections of the speech that was deceptively cut, Sherrod made clear that her experience twenty-four years ago helping a poor White farmer only confirmed a larger truth about the need for all of us to overcome racial divisions in order to fight injustice: “Working with him made me see that it’s really about those who have versus those who don’t . . . they could be black, and they could be white?? they could be Hispanic. And it made me realize then that I needed to work to help poor people—those who don’t have access the way others have.” She continued, “I’ve come to realize that we have to work together. You know, it’s sad that we don’t have a room full of white and blacks here tonight, because we have to overcome the divisions that we have . . . [O]ur communities are not going to thrive. Our children won’t have the communities that they need to be able to stay and live in and have a good life if we can’t figure this out, you all. White people, black people, Hispanic people, we all have to do our part to make our communities a safe place, a healthy place, a good environment.”
It’s that message, about the need for all of us to work together in order to address the common threat of poverty—at a time when the gap between rich and poor is at the highest recorded level ever—and the need to create the healthy, safe communities all children need to live and thrive that was wrongfully cut out of the original coverage of Shirley Sherrod’s speech and lost in the ensuing debate. But that’s the message that resounds through her life’s work and the one we all need to hear and heed.