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Shirley Sherrod is unbowed while in the center of a media storm

SAN DIEGO — Five minutes before stepping onto a national stage, yet again, to defend her honor and talk about the civil rights struggle continuing into the 21st century, Shirley Sherrod let out a brief sigh and reminded no one in particular of a key point:

She didn't ask for this.

But now that she has 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 here 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."

Sherrod also brought a serious message to Andrew Breitbart, who posted selectively edited video July 19 showing Sherrod admitting in a speech that in a previous job she initially hesitated to help a white farmer save his home, sparking a deluge of condemnation before the full video surfaced to show her message was the opposite.

She said she stands ready to sue Breitbart over the impact of the clip, which led Department of Agriculture officials to demand her resignation before she could present her side of the issue.

Despite feeling 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 and former president of the Tampa Bay area chapter for more than eight years, I was asked to deliver the first question to Sherrod among a panel of three journalists that also included CNN's Don Lemon and MSNBC's Maria Schiavocampo. (I asked if she had learned how the media really work.)

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 said 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 that 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 said she saw that fear again 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 Obama, who said on ABC's daytime talk show The View Thursday that the media's speedy news cycle that doesn't always get to the facts first helped spark her problem. But he added, "A lot of people overreacted, including people in my administration."

Sherrod brushed aside Fox's statements that it didn't report substantially on the scandal until after she had resigned.

"It wasn't all media, it was Fox," she said. "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. I started receiving hate mail right away. They had to know what they were doing."

And though she has been gracious about accepting apologies delivered by everyone from U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack to Fox News Channel pundit Bill O'Reilly, there's one person whose apology she has decided she doesn't need. Breitbart, who NABJ officials said originally agreed to appear at the event but 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."

Shirley Sherrod is unbowed while in the center of a media storm 07/29/10 [Last modified: Thursday, July 29, 2010 10:30pm]
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