Even though the egregiously misleading excerpt from Shirley Sherrod’s 43-minute speech came from Andrew Breitbart, the dirty trickster notorious for hustling skewed partisan videos on Fox News, few questioned its validity. That the speech had been given at an N.A.A.C.P. event, with N.A.A.C.P. officials as witnesses, did not prevent even the N.A.A.C.P. from immediately condemning Sherrod for “shameful” actions. As the world knows now, her talk (flogged by Fox as “what racism looks like”) was an uplifting parable about how she had risen above her own trials in the Jim Crow South to aid poor people of every race during her long career in rural development.
The smear might well have stuck if the white octogenarian farmer saved by Sherrod 24 years ago was no longer alive and if he didn’t look like a Norman Rockwell archetype. Only his and his wife’s testimony to her good deeds on CNN could halt the lynching party. Tom Vilsack, the secretary of agriculture who fired Sherrod without questioning the video’s patently spurious provenance, was far slower to reverse himself than the N.A.A.C.P. Good for him that he seemed genuinely chagrined once he did apologize. But an executive so easily bullied by Fox News has no more business running a government department than Ken Salazar, the secretary of interior who let oil companies run wild on deepwater drilling until disaster struck. That the White House sat back while Vilsack capitulated to a mob is a disgraceful commentary on both its guts and competence. This wasn’t a failure of due diligence — there was no diligence.
Even now, I wonder if many of those who have since backtracked from the Sherrod smear — including some in the news business who reported on the video without vetting it — have watched her entire speech. What’s important is not the exculpatory evidence that clears her of a trumped-up crime. What matters is Sherrod’s own story.
She was making the speech in Georgia, her home state, on March 27, the 45th anniversary of her father’s funeral. He had been murdered when she was 17, leaving behind five children and a wife who was pregnant with a sixth. Sherrod had grown up in Baker County, a jurisdiction ruled by a notorious racist sheriff, L. Warren Johnson, who was nicknamed “Gator” for a reason. Black men were routinely murdered there but the guilty were never brought to justice. As Sherrod recounted, not even three witnesses to her father’s murder could persuade the grand jury to indict the white suspect.
Sherrod had long thought she’d flee the South, but had an epiphany on the night of her father’s death. “I couldn’t just let his death go without doing something in answer to what happened,” she said. So she made the commitment to stay and devote her life to “working for change.” She later married Charles Sherrod, a minister and co-founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, whose heroic efforts to advance desegregation, including his imprisonment, can be found in any standard history of the civil rights movement.
None of this legacy, much of it accessible to anyone who wanted to look (or ask), prevented the tarring of Shirley Sherrod last week. And it all unfolded while the country was ostentatiously marking the 50th anniversary of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Excerpted from Frank Rich's opinion piece in the New York Times. A must read.
And Jon Stewart's refreshing take on it.