My Friend Shirley Was Done Wrong
Pilot Staff Writer John Chappell knew Shirley Sherrod and her husband years ago when he worked in the civil rights movement.
If the president of the United States had any guts, he'd invite my old friends Charles and Shirley Sherrod to dinner at the White House and listen carefully to what they could tell him.
At the least, the very least, he could make a phone call. That's more than his secretary of agriculture or anybody else in that department did earlier this week - except to demand her resignation.
By now, everybody knows about the sneakily edited video clip that oh-so-cleverly reversed the entire meaning of what Shirley said in March - 45 years to the day from her father's funeral after his murder by a Ku-Kluxer.
It turned a hero of the civil rights movement into a villain, and everybody fell for it, from D.C. to NAACP. Tom Vilsack couldn't make a phone call? He couldn't even Google "Sherrod" and find out that her husband helped found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Council and spoke at SNCC's 50th in Raleigh not long ago?
Nope. The Ag Department apparently couldn't even remember the millions they'd had to pay out in a lawsuit the Sherrods won on behalf of farmers the agency discriminated against years ago. By now, everybody paying the slightest attention knows that nobody at Vilsack's department bothered to look at or even listen to what she actually said March 27.
Vilsack still doesn't get it. He's offering some sort of civil rights job to her, not her old job back. Looks like he just sees her color, thinks maybe this black woman should work on discrimination. Unless this job is more than it appears to be, I hope she turns him down. Looks like Vilsack still hasn't seen or heard Shirley's speech, which he surely should spend the 43 minutes it would take to watch online.
You should, too. Here's the link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E9NcCa_KjXk.
Last year, my son and I stayed with the Sherrods when we went down to Albany, Ga., for a reunion of the Southwest Georgia Project they'd founded after the Albany Movement. Everybody who knows them calls him "Sherrod" and her "Shirley" - so that's what I'll do here.
One time, Shirley called me and said, "Talk to Sherrod; he's moving all the furniture around. When I come home, it's in a different place."
I called him.
"Sherrod, Shirley says you move the furniture around. Why are you doing that?"
"Well, this is not our house. We are just living here. I don't want us to get too used to it."
It was a small brick house deep inside a mostly African-American suburb where they'd had to move after somebody set fire to their former home. If the family dog hadn't awakened Shirley to the smoke, she and their baby boy would have died. Maybe that's one of the experiences our president needs to hear about first-hand.
Maybe he needs to hear how Shirley, a 17-year-old teen in Baker County, had to deal with her father's murder or the burning cross later fired up outside the house, or how her dad never lived to see the birth of his only son, her brother.
Maybe he needs to hear, as my son and I heard, about the woman who threw her body over Sherrod just as a sheriff was getting ready to beat him to death. Maybe he needs to hear how Sherrod and Shirley devoted their lives, and risked them over and over - like Patrick Henry - for liberty, equality and justice.
Last year, we spent a day with Shirley traveling through the 12 counties of southwest Georgia visiting agricultural co-ops, hearing about job "incubators" like the agricultural products research center her old high school has been turned into, or meeting new elected county commissioners of Terrell County ("Terrible Terrell" in the old days) to hear them say how they won't do as was done to them, but mean instead to do right.
I wish the president could spend a day like that with Shirley, or at least a few hours. She and Sherrod are real community organizers who are "in it for the long haul," as Sherrod used to say.
At least now the whole world has had a glimpse of Shirley Sherrod, this remarkable woman who responded to cruelty and repression by rolling up the sleeves of her life to help others of all races and all cultures, to stand with the poor and the weak against the mighty and their money.
Contact John Chappell at (910) 783-5841 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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