In the summer of 2010, Shirley Sherrod was catapulted into a media storm that blew apart her life and her job doing what she’d done for decades: helping poor, hardworking people live the American dream. She was a lifelong activist who served as Georgia’s first Black director of rural development. In a March 2010 speech to the Georgia NAACP, Sherrod said: “God helped me to see that it’s not just about Black people. It’s about poor people. And I’ve come a long way. I knew that I shouldn’t live with hate, you know. As my mother has said to so many: ‘If we had tried to live with hate in our hearts, we’d probably be dead now.’ I’ve come to realize that we have to work together.”
Sherrod made what she thought was an insightful and innocuous statement, but an intense media storm followed when a right-wing blogger, the now late Andrew Breitbart, disseminated a video clip of the speech Sherrod had given with the intent of making her an example of “reverse racism.” The right-wing media ramped up the outrage, and before Sherrod had a chance to defend herself, the Obama administration demanded her resignation. Then, after hearing from Sherrod herself and learning the entire truth of what she said in that speech, the administration tried to backtrack. As public officials and media professionals admitted to being duped and apologized for their rush to judgment, Sherrod found herself the subject of a teachable moment.
“The Courage to Hope: How I Stood Up to the Politics of Fear” (Atria Books, $24.99) not only addresses this regrettable episode in American politics, but it also tells Sherrod’s own story of growing up on a farm in southwest Georgia during the final violent years of Jim Crow. As a child she dreamed of leaving the South, but when her father was murdered by a white neighbor who was never brought to justice, Sherrod made a vow to stay in Georgia and commit herself to the cause of truth and racial healing. With her husband, Charles, a legend in the Civil Rights Movement, she has devoted her life to empowering poor people and rural communities — Americans who are most in need.
Growing up in segregated Georgia, Sherrod was exposed at a very young age to racism, injustice and hatred. Her parents, however, would never allow her to express any sentiments of anger or bitterness as their deep-seated faith and belief that justice would eventually prevail was what guided their home. This was severely put to the test when a white farmer shot Sherrod’s father in the back over a property dispute. He would die 10 days later, and his murderer was never brought to justice, despite the overwhelming evidence against him.
Even more heartbreaking was that Sherrod’s mother was pregnant at the time with a son who would never meet the father he was named for. Sherrod was 17 at the time, and vowed to stay in the South to help make things better.
Eventually, she would meet Charles Sherrod, who was making a name for himself as a Freedom Rider and leader in the fight to desegregate Southwest Georgia. They married, raised two children and worked together during the Civil Rights Movement. Together, they were a vigilant force in coordinating a collective of Black farmers called New Communities. Sherrod’s advocacy for farmers lead to a job with the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, which is were she would meet Roger Spooner, the subject of her NAACP speech.
She was praised for her work with the Federation, and for leading the charge to bring a class action lawsuit against the U.S.D.A. on behalf of Black farmers who had been discriminated against for years and had lost their land. The Obama Administration took notice and offered Sherrod a job as the Georgia State Director of Rural Development — the first African American ever selected for this job. Sherrod was responsible for administering over $1 billion in loans and loan guarantees to rural communities in the state of Georgia.
The incident that brought Sherrod into the spotlight does not define her life and work. The Obama administration apologized to Sherrod, and offered her a full-time, high-level internal advocacy position with the USDA, which she ultimately declined. “The Courage To Hope” includes notes, an appendix and Sherrod’s complete speech to the NAACP.