Thursday, November 08, 2012

USDA secretary, president take lickings in Shirley Sherrod's memoir about her hasty USDA firing

Shirley Sherrod, who was the first African American appointed to lead Rural Development in Georgia for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and who was very publicly fired just 13 months later, has written a memoir about her experience. In the book, The Courage to Hope: How I Stood up to the Politics of Fear, Sherrod does not cast President Obama, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and then-Deputy Undersecretary for Rural Development Cheryl Cook as heroes, Agri-Pulse reports.

Sherrod was appointed in 2009, and fired 13 months later after a conservative blogger released a small portion of a speech to an NAACP chapter in which it seemed to be bragging about turning away a white farmer who needed help. As it turns out, Sherrod was talking about an incident that occurred 23 years before her appointment, and the rest of the clip revealed that she turned the farmer away to refer him to a white lawyer thinking that would be more beneficial for him. When that lawyer didn't help him, she did.

"The most powerful portion of Sherrod's new memoir . . . fleshes out the story she sketched in her NAACP speech," Kevin Boyle of The Washington Post reports. He writes that Sherrod's activism was born out of her childhood on a farm in southern Georgia in the dying days of Jim Crow. After her father was murdered by a white neighbor when she was 17, her family began participating in civil rights marches. She has spent more than two decades working on behalf of rural poor, both black and white, Boyle writes.

In The Courage to Hope, Sherrod does fault Obama, Vilsack and Cook for "failing to try to learn the whole story . . . before Vilsack ordered her fired," Agri-Pulse reports. But she is not bitter about the situation. Instead, her sharpest criticism is for the blogger, Glenn Beck and Fox News for "piling on the story," and Iowa Republican Rep. Steve King for trying to block financial settlements with black farmers who were denied USDA loans over the years, Agri-Pulse reports.

Sherrod writes about her experience with racism in the South and the episode that ultimately drove her from public service. "Mostly, she is saddened by how Vilsack handled the affair, from the July 2010 firing that she describes as 'hasty and cowardly,' to his offer to her to become deputy director of a new Office of Advocacy and Outreach," Agri-Pulse writes. She refused Vilsack's offer. "His kind words and praise felt hollow to me," Sherrod writes.

Agir-Pulse is subscription-only, but a four-week free trial can be accessed here.

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