Sherrod firing conjures up USDA’s history of civil rights struggles

Shirley Sherrod’s firing at the Agriculture Department (USDA) has put the national spotlight on the agency’s troubled civil rights history.

And it reminded several black farmers’ advocates that the USDA has had to address charges of racism in the past.

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Anger toward USDA by black farmers is not new. Thousands of civil rights complaints have been filed against the department after many black farmers were denied loans and other federal assistance over the years.

But Sherrod’s swift firing, based on edited video of a speech she gave — something Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has since apologized for — has reignited those feelings.

“No white employee has been fired because of that. Here was a speech by a black employee teaching others about race, and she was fired for it,” said Ralph Paige, executive director of the Federation of the Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund. “That should be the lesson that is learned. It should never happen again.”

Appointed in 2009, Sherrod was the USDA’s first black rural development state director for Georgia. Before that, she worked with Paige’s organization, helping farmers keep their land.

That is where Sherrod ended up helping a white farmer who was about to lose his farm.

She retold that story at an NAACP banquet in March, saying she at first had qualms about helping a white man but that she later did so, realizing that race shouldn’t matter. But after only part of her speech made it into heavy media circulation Monday — being misconstrued as if she chose never to help the white farmer — was she forced by Vilsack to resign.

Later, the farmer, Roger Spooner, and his wife said Sherrod was not racist at all and helped save their farm from bankruptcy. Vilsack apologized Wednesday and offered Sherrod a new job, saying because of her “experience, she has a unique set of skills.”

Part of that experience unique to Sherrod was her upbringing. She grew up in the South and her father was killed by a white farmer who was never prosecuted — an anecdote she shared in her NAACP banquet speech.

“When she started talking about her father, it captured the classic South during that time period. It is always the same story. Struggling to get loans, struggling to get land — that’s the story of the black farmer,” said John Boyd Jr., president of the National Black Farmers Association.

As a Virginia farmer, Boyd recounted how he was denied a farm loan in 1996 by a USDA official, seeing his loan application torn up and his shirt being spat upon with tobacco juice. Boyd later had to foreclose on his farm to save it.

Like Boyd, Sherrod is a claimant to the USDA discrimination settlement for black farmers, known as Pigford. The suit was first settled in 1999, but thousands missed the filing deadline and are still seeking compensation.

Then-Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) was key in adding a $100 million fund to the 2008 Farm Bill to help pay back those late claims. Now, thanks to a renegotiated court settlement known as Pigford II, Congress is close to passing $1.15 billion in compensation for those late filers, which is attached to the war supplemental appropriations bill.

The bill has already passed the House. A Senate leadership aide said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) planned to hold a vote on the war supplemental appropriations bill this week — perhaps as early as Thursday — with the discrimination settlement funds attached to that bill.

It is not clear, however, if the supplemental with the settlement funds attached could win the necessary 60 Senate votes to beat back an expected Republican filibuster, according to the same aide.

Paige is urging the Senate to approve the funding before the August break.

“They need to vote on this thing before Congress is recessed for the summer,” Paige said. “It will help us put a black eye behind us as a country.”

Beyond securing funds for the Pigford settlement, both Boyd and Paige said the Obama administration should take the bigger opportunity over mistakenly firing Sherrod to confront racism that persists in the United States.

“It seems the administration and President Obama don’t want to address race. He should take it head on. He should have an open forum so the American people can put race behind them,” Boyd said.

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Paige said he accepted Vilsack’s apology but “we have to change the culture at USDA.”

It seems Vilsack is on board. On Wednesday, he said wants to move past the flap and renew USDA’s commitment to “a new era in civil rights.”

“This is a good woman. She’s been put through hell, and I could have done and should have done a better job. I want to learn from that experience. I want the agency and department to learn from that experience, and I want us to be stronger for it,” Vilsack said.