Editor's note: This contribution by the late journalist I.F. Stone first appeared in our January 1975 magazine.
When the rightwing smear blog Breitbart.com first published a deceptively-edited video of former U.S. Department of Agriculture employee Shirley Sherrod in July of 2010, the rightwing media went berserk, trumpeting the footage as proof that it's the Obama Administration, and not the tea party, that had been behaving in a racist manner.
At first, I rolled my eyes and scrolled past the giant font headlines on Drudge Report and Fox Nation, already hardened against believing anything they publish. At the time I was working as senior editor of The Raw Story, a daily news outfit with a production cycle set to turbo. That's why I blew right past those headlines: there was probably more credible news out there somewhere. Don't engage with the parade of idiots, I thought. But I did not realize that this previously unknown woman and the tragedy that befell her at the hands of literally an entire industry of bumbling rightwing idiots would become the national media's obsession for the next two weeks.
In a post that, ironically, reminded viewers that "context is everything," the now-deceased Andrew Breitbart triumphantly announced that he had redeemed the tea party from banishment to the racist hall of shame by unearthing a video which proves that it is actually the NAACP and this employee of the Obama Administration who are the true racists.
"In her meandering speech to what appears to be an all-black audience, this federally appointed executive bureaucrat lays out in stark detail, that her federal duties are managed through the prism of race and class distinctions," Breitbart wrote. "In the first video, Sherrod describes how she racially discriminates against a white farmer. She describes how she is torn over how much she will choose to help him. And, she admits that she doesn't do everything she can for him, because he is white. Eventually, her basic humanity informs that this white man is poor and needs help. But she decides that he should get help from 'one of his own kind.' She refers him to a white lawyer."
Photo: Flickr creative commons.
Though Breitbart pulled the video down, a rightwing conspiracy blog preserved the edited clip in its entirety, even carrying Breitbart's spin about Sherrod's alleged racism.
Fox News, in particular Glenn Beck and Bill O'Reilly, took this video and ran with it, apparently not thinking that Breitbart had done zero research on this woman's work, and without having any additional context about her remarks. "You tell me what part of the gospel is teaching that!" Beck jeered on his radio show after playing the deceptively-edited tape of Sherrod's remarks. He added that listening to the tape was, to him, as if America had been "transported into 1965, except it's the other way around."
Shirley Sherrod remembers 1965 a little differently than Glenn Beck. Being black in Baker County, Georgia in 1965 is not a thing he, Bill O'Reilly or Andrew Breitbart could ever imagine.
"My father was murdered during my senior year of high school [in 1965], and on the night of his death I made a commitment to stay in the south and work for change," she told The Progressive recently. "I devoted my life to working in the south then, in 1965."
Sherrod grew up on a country farm in Baker County, where the local sheriff and his muscle enforced the law -- the law being that basically whatever they said goes. The sheriff's muscle was a man everyone called "Gator," she told The Progressive.. "We attempted to register to vote, we were marching, we were highlighting the issues and they sent the Gator. The Gator was... the nickname of L. Warren Johnson, who wanted to be known as Gator, as in aligator, because he made a sound like one. He was a big man who had killed a number of black people, who had the power to do whatever he wanted to do. [Standing up] meant facing him and fighting. He was there if we tried to integrate the school, he was there to stop us if we tried to vote. He was there on everything we tried to do."
After her father was murdered in a dispute with a white landowner, only to see the landowner set free by an all-white jury, Sherrod committed to working for social change in the south. "The civil rights movement had not reached us, in terms of fighting back," in 1965, she explained. "We supported what was happening in Albany, but after my father's death the community -- the people, black people in the county -- came together with the help of workers from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, being led at that time by the person who later became my husband, Charles Sherrod."
Finding love, she and her husband embarked on a lifetime of fighting for civil rights and ensuring the people of rural Georgia are adequately served by the government, and she toiled in relative obscurity until landing a job with the Obama Administration, as the USDA's Georgia Director of Rural Development. Proud as she was of this job, Sherrod would only work there for approximately 11 months.
"I drove four hours from [where I was working] to my home where I'm taking calls from my four granddaughters, who were so proud I was working for the Obama Administration," she said. "To have to go home and say to them that I had been fired was not a good feeling at all. But it also was something that made me more determined that I would work hard. If I had to tell one person at a time for the rest of my life, I would get the truth out."
And that's precisely what she did.
Screenshot via FoxNews.com.
A timeline of the Sherrod scandal immortalized by Media Matters makes it abundantly clear just how big of a screwup Andrew Breitbart led the rightwing hate machine into with his ill-researched declaration of "proof" that the NAACP is full or racists. Even though Breitbart's defenders to this day point out that he later wrote of Sherrod's supposed "redemption," this defense is laughable.
To this date, the original URL to Breitbart's first hit piece on Sherrod is blank; the page now redirects to his main site. Bill O'Reilly, similarly, recorded a show in which he called for Sherrod's resignation, but she had already resigned by the time the show aired. He later apologized, but then criticized her some more, saying Sherrod was being "divisive." And Glenn Beck spent his whole first TV broadcast after ripping into her on the radio pretending like he'd suddenly read a different story entirely, as if he were suddenly being careful (if that's possible for someone like Beck), seemingly having begun to question the accuracy of Breitbart's claims. Breitbart later blamed Glenn Beck for the whole thing.
Naturally, Rush Limbaugh joined in the frey as well and criticized Fox News host Shepard Smith for refusing to show the deceptively-edited footage. But he, like many others, insisted that this whole uproar wasn't even about her to begin with, saying it's really about the Obama Administration's evil communist plot to make the tea party look racist.
"He doesn't have any slave blood," Limbaugh said of Obama. "He doesn't know what it's like. He has no clue what it's like to be black in this country, he has no experience, didn't grow up being black in this country, he doesn't even know what the hardships are, he doesn't know what discrimination is. I, Shirley Sherrod, I need to go talk to Barack Obama, get him down for the struggle. She's clueless."
The edited portion of Sherrod's speech that March 2010 day was about an event that happened decades before she became a government employee, although Breitbart claimed that it was proof of a government worker engaging in racist behavior on the job. Instead, Sherrod was talking about a time she was working as an activist for a Georgia nonprofit over 20 years prior. Her unedited speech makes it abundantly clear that Sherrod was not talking about discriminating against a white farmer: she was illustrating how she overcame her own prejudicial feelings despite the horrifying encounter with institutionalized racism she suffered as a young adult.
"I had never heard of Andrew Breitbart," she told The Progressive. "I kept wondering, 'Who is this person and why did he choose me?' Apparently he didn't do any research on me to know of my work, to know that I was not a person that had in any way tried to be a racist, or in any way tried to hate."
"I channeled all of those feelings into trying to do good," Sherrod added. "So, you don't feel good when you've been targeted, but if you look back through my history, you see that each time I've been targeted, I just continue to work, to do the best that I can to get the truth out. That's what I did."
Soon, Sherrod's real story was popping up everywhere. Her pushback began in print, with The Atlanta Journal Constitution, which Fox News later quoted and appeared to take seriously. CNN led the charge on television a day later, putting Sherrod on the air to explain that the whole thing had been taken out of context. Despite her pleas, Sean Hannity, Matt Drudge, Michelle Malkin, Brent Bozel, MSNBC's "Morning Joe," and even the NAACP itself were denouncing Sherrod's allegedly racist behavior. Others, like Newt Gingrich, were praising USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack for firing her.
"I knew at that point that people in this country thought I was this terrible person who would refuse to help a white farmer," she told The Progressive. "No one knew I was talking about something that happened 20-something years earlier, using that to try to get people to see that a lot of our issues are about being poor and not connected, trying to say we should actually work together to deal with some of the things that were happening. It was a speech designed to bring people together, not separate them. To have everyone feel I was this terrible person was not a good place to be in."
Days later, when it became apparent that she'd been the victim of a malicious smear campaign, President Barack Obama himself would apologize to Sherrod and offer her a new job at the USDA. Sherrod, however, did not accept.
"Why didn't they offer me my same job?" she still wonders. "I didn't do anything wrong and I really have never gotten the answer to that question."
Instead, she sued Breitbart, and pursued the lawsuit even against his estate after his abrupt death. Rather fittingly, his attorneys defended their client by telling a judge that his statements about finding proof of the NAACP's racism were basically B.S. -- or as they put it, based on opinion rather than fact.
Apart from her ongoing libel lawsuit against Breitbart's estate -- which Sherrod resolutely declined to comment on with any specificity -- she's spent the ensuing months continuing to work in her community on today's most pressing civil rights struggles: education and voting. "I'm finding that some of the things that we fought for years ago are slowly being taken away," Sherrod explained. "In my home of Baker since the Supreme Court decision [on the Voting Rights Act], they tried to close four of the five voting precincts. You've got an out of control school board that's wreaking havoc on children. I'm actually attending meetings every Monday night, just like I did back in the 60s."
And it's her continued work for civil rights that's brought public attention to Sherrod yet again. Sherrod will be featured as the keynote speaker during the 26th Annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Awards Dinner in Annapolis, Maryland, set to take place on Jan. 17. "I'll talk about the work that Dr. King did and the work that I did, and the work I've continued to do ever since 1965," she said.
"Back then you could literally lose you life and no one would do anything about it," Sherrod added. "My father was murdered and the system protected the person who did it. Things are different in that way now, although... Things happen. So, many of us were in the same boat. It was easier during those years to pull people together to fight injustices. Not quite as easy until you're hurt, these days, but the issues are still out there."
In the coming months, we'll all find out whether Sherrod is successful in her libel lawsuit against Breitbart's estate and whether she'll end up owning Breitbart.com. If she does, Sherrod has said she plans to shut it down for good, ending the legacy of a blog best known for ruining the life of a civil servant and helping former Breitbart blogger and media prankster James O'Keefe create an even more deceptively-edited video that ultimately led to the destruction of voting rights group ACORN. While taking out one such hate merchant is good, she would rather see a change in the tide of public awareness. But that's going to take a lot more than just a lawsuit.
"Even though there's so much more technology and so many more news programs, people just are not as up-to-date as they were [in the 60s]," she lamented. "Everyone assumed that we fought for basic rights, and now those fights are over. That's exactly when they start resurfacing again."