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Hard feelings about handling of Shirley Sherrod have deep roots in Georgia

Black farmers in the South have been subject to discrimination, even in recent years – and the former USDA official has been right there with them.

August 04, 2010|By Kathleen Hennessey, Tribune Washington Bureau
  • Willie Adams was one of the first farmers to join a class-action suit for discrimination settled for $2 billion against the USDA in 1997.
Willie Adams was one of the first farmers to join a class-action suit for… (Reuters )

Reporting from Albany, Ga. — For Fredrick Hall, the soil of southwest Georgia has yielded bounties of peanuts, a hard-earned livelihood and a lifetime of adjusting to the whims of a higher power.

"I'm dependent on the Lord," Hall said recently, as the sun pounded down on his peanut crop, which he cannot afford to irrigate. "Right now, Lord, we could use some rain."

Hall grew up in the Jim Crow South — where he says a "plantation mentality" governed life in the surrounding farming community. So much has changed — but not enough, he said. For Hall and other black farmers here, progress seems to be inevitably followed by disappointment, and hope limited by the scars of the past.

Which perhaps explains Hall's reaction to the story of Shirley Sherrod — the hasty firing, the accusations of racism, the media frenzy, the repeated apologies.

The 62-year-old farmer recently sat in a booth at a roadside cafe, a haven from the afternoon heat. From underneath a fraying straw hat, he smiled wryly across his wide face and offered his analysis of Sherrod's story.

"America as usual," he said.

The case of Sherrod, the government official dismissed and inaccurately accused of racism, has become a sort of Rorschach test. Some saw a victim of a high-tech smear campaign. Others saw the perils of a fast-paced news cycle or a skittish president quick to try to avoid scandal.

In Sherrod's southwest Georgia home, many saw a painful loop of history.

The racism charge was not lodged at just any official. Her family is intertwined with this region's tortured tale of racial animus. And the agency that quickly distanced itself from her was not just any arm of power. The Agriculture Department has long been a symbol of lingering institutional discrimination.

And southwest Georgia is no ordinary pocket in the Deep South. Historians describe it as among the most difficult to integrate in the 1960s. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. left Albany having accomplished little. Change was so slow to come that sharecropping, although rare, existed until the early 1970s.

Erma Wilburn, who once participated with Sherrod in a farming cooperative, sees much work left to do to obtain equality. The election of a black U.S. president has not changed that, she said.

"You don't fire a black woman from the South like that," Wilburn said. "Don't you know she had to go through something to get to where she is?"

Shirley Sherrod was born Shirley Miller just outside Albany in Baker County, or "bad Baker County," as it was also known by blacks in the area. Her father grew corn, cotton and peanuts on the more than 500 acres he owned. Sherrod and her sisters worked in the fields, went to the Baptist church and studied hard.

She was a senior at the all-black East Baker High School, about to become the first to graduate in her family, when she got the news on a March afternoon in 1965. Her father had been shot. Relatives rushed to the hospital to give blood. It was too late.

The family says Hosie Miller was killed by a white neighbor after a dispute over cattle. No one was ever indicted in the case. Sherrod says the killing led her to her calling, to work for justice in southwest Georgia.

She married Charles Sherrod, who was part of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and had come to town to register black voters. He was a leader in the coalition of civil rights groups known as the Albany Movement.

In 1969, the Sherrods and other leaders formed New Communities Inc., a cooperative farm run by committee. For the next 15 years, about a dozen black families lived and worked there.

"We shared what we had," Wilburn said. "We supported each other."

The farm, like many in the region, was battered by drought in the 1980s. Unlike other farms, New Communities' request for a federal emergency loan to build a small irrigation system was denied, without clear explanation, an arbitrator later found. The next year, 1982, the group decided to sell timber to help keep the farm afloat. But the USDA unexpectedly took the profits as a precondition for another loan. When New Communities applied for a loan in 1983, the agency requested a deed on the land as collateral. It took the deed, but gave nothing in return.

By 1985, New Communities was bankrupt and the last of its farm, once nearly 6,000 acres, was sold.

Across the South in the 1970s and 1980s, scores of black farmers lost their land and livelihoods while the USDA, historically a sort of safety net for family farms, allowed them to slip through. Unable to get timely loans, denied bank credit, and poorly informed of the options available, their farms sputtered.

In August 1997, a North Carolina farmer named Timothy Pigford sued the Agriculture Department, claiming racial discrimination and arguing that civil rights complaints had not been responded to since the Reagan administration had dismantled the Office of Civil Rights in 1983.

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