She was smeared by right-wing media, condemned by the NAACP, and canned by the Obama administration. It wasn’t pretty, what was done this week to Shirley Sherrod.
And maybe something good can come of it. The thought occurred to me after reading her now-famous speech, which is about the power of grace and the possibility of redemption.
Here’s a way to get some good. This September, when school begins, we should make the speech required viewing in the nation’s high schools. It packs quite a lesson within quite a story.
You know the essential facts. On March 27, Ms. Sherrod, 62, Georgia director of rural development for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, spoke at an NAACP meeting in Coffee County, Ga. She was dressed in a dark suit with ivory lapels and cuffs, and the impression she gives in the video is of a person of authority. She came across like a person who has lived a life, not a media knock-off of a life but a real one.
And this is what she said. Forty-five years before, to the day, her father’s funeral was held. He had been murdered by a white man in Baker County, Ga. These were still the bad old days; lynchings had taken place in her lifetime. The man who murdered her father “was never punished,” even though there were three eyewitnesses. The grand jury refused to indict.
All this was told not in a tone of rage or self-pity but of simple remembered sadness: “My father was a farmer, and growing up on the farm my dream was to get as far away from the farm and Baker County as I could get.” She worked “picking cotton, picking cucumbers, shaking peanuts. . . . Doing all that work on the farm, it will make you get an education.” She wanted to escape. “The older folks know what I’m talking about.”
Go North, she thought. She’d seen black people return from vacations up North: “You know how they came back talking, and came back looking.” The audience laughed. “I learned later some of those cars they drove home were rented.” The audience laughed louder.
She was 17 when her father was killed, in 1965. After that, one night, a cross was burned on their lawn. Her mother had a gun, and black men from throughout the county came and surrounded the white men who surrounded the house. Shirley was terrified and hid in a back room, praying. That night something changed. “I made the decision that I would stay and work.”
She wouldn’t leave the South but change it. Here she addressed the youthful members of her audience: “Young people, I want you to know when you are true to what God wants you to do, the path just opens up, and things just come to you. God is good, I can tell you that.”
But when she made her decision, “I was making that commitment to black people only.” She didn’t care about whites.
Almost a quarter-century ago, she was working for a farmers aid group when she was asked to help a couple named Roger and Eloise Spooner. They were losing their farm, and they were white.
Mr. Spooner made a poor impression. He “took a long time talking.” She thought he was trying to establish a superior intelligence. “What he didn’t know while he was talking all that time . . . was I was trying to decide just how much help I was gonna give him. I was struggling with the fact that so many black people had lost their farmland.” So she did enough to meet her responsibilities, but no more. She took him to “a white lawyer,” figuring “that his own kind will take care of him.”
The lawyer took the farmer’s money and, she said, did little else. She assumed things had been taken care of. But in May, 1987, Mr. Spooner received a foreclosure notice and he called her, frantic. His house was to be sold a week later on the courthouse steps, and no motion had been filed to stop it.
They all met. The lawyer suggested the farmer retire. “I said, ‘I can’t believe you said that.'”
Indignant, she set herself to save the Spooners’ farm. “That’s when it was revealed to me that it’s about poor versus those who have,” not white versus black. “It opened my eyes.” She worked the phones, reached out to those who could help, talked to more lawyers, called officials.
And she saved that farm.
“Working with him,” said Ms. Sherrod, “made me see . . . that it’s really about those who have versus those who don’t.” It’s helping the frightened and powerless. “And they could be black, they could be white, they could be Hispanic.”
She said that 45 years ago she couldn’t say what she will say tonight: “I’ve come a long way. I knew that I couldn’t live with hate, you know. As my mother has said to so many, ‘If we had tried to live with hate in my heart, we probably be dead now.'” She said it was “sad” that the room was not “full of whites and blacks.” She quoted Toni Morrison: We have to get to a point where “race exists but it doesn’t matter.”
There is beauty in the speech, and bravery too. It was brave because her subject wasn’t the nation’s failures and your failures but her failures. The beauty is that is deals with the great subject of our lives: how to be better, how to make the world better. It’s not a perfect speech—she’s tendentious in her support for health care and takes cheap shots at Republicans. And it’s not the poor versus the rich, it’s the powerful helping the powerless. But it’s good.
You know what happened this week. Someone cut the 45-minute speech down to less than two minutes, to the part in which she talked about not wanting to help white people. Andrew Breitbart ran it on one of his websites and made Ms. Sherrod look like a race-game-playing government bully.
It was trumpeted all over conservative media. The Obama administration panicked and forced her to resign. She wasn’t even given a chance to explain.
And then the Spooners stepped in, and this time they saved her. Is Ms. Sherrod a racist, they were asked. “No way in the world,” said Roger Spooner. “She stuck with us.” Eloise: “She helped us, so we’re helping her.”
Then people started bothering to watch and read the whole speech.
So what are the lessons?
That we’re all too quick to judge. That we don’t even let the evidence of our eyes stop us in our rush to judgment. You can’t see and hear Ms. Sherrod and fail to understand that she’s a thoughtful, serious person.
That we are not skeptical enough of what new media can cook up in its little devil’s den. That anyone can be the victim of a high-tech lynching, and that because of this we have to be careful, slow down, look deeper. We live in a time when what you say is taped, and those tapes can be cut, and the cuts can be ruinous, and if you think it only happens to the rich and famous, think again. It’s coming to a theater near you.
And for students? What can they learn? How about: Individuals can change, just like nations. They can get better, if they want to be.
What’s more important than that? What do students need to hear more?
It really can be a teachable moment. It can.