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USDA official's resignation stirs racial tempest

Shirley Sherrod was forced to resign for remarks some have cast as racist. The NAACP, which initially condemned her comments, reverses position after reviewing her full speech.

July 21, 2010|Times Wire Services

A feud between the NAACP and the "tea party" movement engulfed the Department of Agriculture this week when the agency ousted an African American official for remarks that some have called racist.

Shirley Sherrod, the USDA's director of rural development for Georgia, was pressured to resign Monday when a video surfaced in which she told an NAACP audience that she had not given a white farmer "the full force of what I could do" to help him save the family farm in 1986, when she worked for a Georgia nonprofit group.

The National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People initially condemned her remarks, which were publicized by a conservative blogger and picked up by Fox News.

But on Tuesday, when the video of her full speech was released, the NAACP retracted its condemnation and called on the USDA to rehire her, saying it had been "snookered" by Fox and conservative website publisher Andrew Breitbart. And the farm couple involved in the incident stepped forward to defend Sherrod, calling her a friend and saying that she saved their farm.

"Having reviewed the full tape by Shirley Sherrod … and most importantly heard the testimony of the white farmers mentioned in this story, we now believe that the organization that edited the documents did so with the intention of deceiving millions of Americans," the statement from NAACP President Benjamin Jealous said.

Early Wednesday, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said he would reconsider. In a statement, he said he would "conduct a thorough review and consider additional facts" about his decision to ask Sherrod to resign, the Associated Press reported.

Conservative media outlets tied the video to the NAACP's recent resolution calling on the tea party movement to repudiate racist activities among its activists, some of whom are said to have displayed images of President Obama with a bone through his nose and the White House with a lawn full of watermelons.

Breitbart told CNN's "John King, USA" that releasing the video was "not about Shirley Sherrod."

"This was about the NAACP attacking the tea party, and this is showing racism at an NAACP event," he said.

Sherrod said Tuesday that the incident with the farmers took place when she worked at the Federation of Southern Cooperatives. She said the experience helped her learn to move beyond race and that she tells the story to audiences to make that point.

She added that she "went all out" to help the man keep his farm. She resigned, she said, only under pressure from the Obama administration.

The farmers to whom Sherrod had referred told CNN and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that she had helped them avoid losing their farm. Elaine Spooner, now 82, called Sherrod a "friend for life."

"I don't know what brought up the racist mess," Roger Spooner told CNN's "Rick's List." "They just want to stir up some trouble, it sounds to me."

Vilsack, who said in a statement Monday that the USDA had "zero tolerance" for bias, said Tuesday that the episode affects Sherrod's ability to do her job. He also said that the decision was his, and that he didn't discuss it with the White House.

"I don't believe this woman is a racist at all," he said. "She's a political appointee, and her job is basically to focus on job growth in Georgia, and I have deep concern about her ability to do her job without her judgments being second-guessed."

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