Tired in private but feisty onstage, ousted USDA official Shirley Sherrod vows to educate President Obama and sue Andrew Breitbart
SAN DIEGO -- Five minutes before stepping onto a national stage, yet again, to defend her honor and remind us all that the civil rights struggle continues into the 21st Century, Shirley Sherrod let out a small sigh and reminded no one in particular of an important point:
She didn’t ask for this.
But now that she’s survived a conservative blogger’s use of edited video to try turning her words of racial conciliation into a racist screed, the ousted Agriculture Department official was ready to bring a strong message to the National Association of Black Journalists convention Thursday.
Know your history. Or you’ll be doomed to repeat it.
"We have to do a better job of helping those individuals who get those jobs in the media, education and the presidency…understand their history," said Sherrod, who left little doubt she was talking about President Barack Obama, criticizing America's first black president for being too quick to try appeasing opponents of civil rights groups.
"Those of us who were in the civil rights struggle for 50 years or so, we tried too much to shield that burden and pain from younger people," she said. "That’s why I invited (President Obama) to Georgia…He needs a little lesson."
She also brought a serious message to Andrew Breitbart, who posted selectively edited video July 19 showing Sherrod admitting in a speech she initially hesitated to help a white farmer save his home in a previous job -- sparking a deluge of condemnation before the full video surfaced, showing her message was the opposite.
Despite occasionally seeming a bit overwhelmed by the attention, Sherrod was at turns fierce and conciliatory while speaking during a hastily convened public session, scheduled before the official start of the NABJ’s 35th annual conference.
As a longtime NABJ member – I served as president of the Tampa Bay area chapter for more than eight years – I was asked to deliver the first question among a panel of three journalists who questioned Sherrod, including CNN’s Don Lemon and MSNBC’s Maria Sciavocampo.
During the session, parts of which were scheduled to be broadcast on CNN and Fox News Channel, Sherrod said she hadn’t yet spent time reading over the new job offered to her by the Department of Agriculture. (one concern, she noted, was that the document is labeled "draft").
She does wonder, even now, if it would have made a difference for her if the Department of Agriculture had a more diverse staff who might have questioned the attempt to demonize her and the NAACP chapter which heard her speech.
Her voice steady and pointed, Sherrod described how a teacher was afraid to drive her to the hospital 45 years ago after a white man shot and killed her father, fearful of the repercussions. She saw that fear again, she said, when her supervisor demanded she resign last week out of concern that Fox News Channel pundit Glenn Beck was going to highlight Breitbart’s video.
"I don’t go looking for (fights over racism), but if it’s there, I need to recognize it," she said. "And I knew it was racism when it happened to me; nobody needed to tell me that."
In that spirit, the longtime civil rights activist and NAACP member firmly disagreed with President Obama, who said on ABC’s daytime talk show The View that the media’s speedy news cycle helped spark her problem. "It wasn’t all media, it was Fox," she said, brushing aside the news channel’s statements that it didn’t report substantially on the scandal until after she had resigned.
"I don’t know all that Fox was doing behind the scenes to get the effect they were looking for, which was to get me to resign," she said. "I started receiving hate mail right away…They had to know what they were doing."
And though she’s been gracious about accepting apologies delivered by everyone from Vilsack to Fox News Channel pundit Bill O’Reilly, there’s one person whose apology she’s decided she doesn’t need.
Breitbart, who NABJ officials said originally agreed to appear at the event then declined when it was obvious Sherrod would be there in person, need not bother with a mea culpa to her.
"Whatever he says now, he had to know he was targeting me, whether or not he was targeting the NAACP," she said. "He hasn’t apologized…(and) I don’t want it at this point."