Shirley Sherrod, A Story of Redemption
by Charles Lemos, Wed Jul 21, 2010 at 03:52:17 AM EDT
I've listened to the entire 45 minute speech. It is an unbelievable story of redemption. It is an American life story from an amazing woman of character. This is a woman born in the Old South and who has dedicated her life to helping to transform it learning much about herself along the way. It is an incredible life story and one that should be celebrated. It's the sort of life story that should make Americans proud to be Americans. Here we have a woman who has suffered great injustices living through terrible tragedies and yet she still has an abiding faith in the United States and in her capacity to enact change.
The speech was given on March, 27, 2010, the 45th anniversary of her father's murder by a white man in rural Baker County, Georgia. She begins her speech by remembering her father and recounting the story and how her father's murderer, despite three witnesses, was not charged. She recalls how as young girl growing up on a farm picking cucumbers, cotton and shaking peanuts she wanted nothing more than to leave the South and head up north to go to college. She describes her family, the struggles to build a home and how her father, the proud father of five girls, wanted to have a son.
She tells of the hardships of being black in Baker County, Georgia recounting the lynching of a cousin, Bobby Hall, who was lynched in Newton, Georgia on January 30, 1943 by the then Sheriff, a man named Claude Screws. Sheriff Screws and two deputies killed Bobby Hall "beating him with their fists and with a solid-bar blackjack" in the absence of provocation following his arrest for the suspected theft of a tire. She tells how the Roosevelt Justice Department intervened in the case by charging Sheriff Screws and his deputies not with murder but with violating the civil rights of Bobby Hall.
Indeed, the Roosevelt Justice Department used one of several civil rights statutes passed by Congress in 1868 to bring Sheriff Screws to justice. These statutes though on the books had never been invoked. The case thus broke new ground. Screws would appeal his conviction to the Supreme Court where it was overturned. Here is some background on the Screws v United States case and its importance in advancing the cause of civil rights.
The key precedent established by the Screws case, however, came in the Supreme Court's declaration that the taking of the victim's life had, despite the defendant's contrary argument, occurred "under color" of state law so that a prosecution under the federal civil rights statute in federal court was permissible. Three of four dissenting justices argued that the beating did not meet the "under color of state law" requirement because the defendants had violated, rather than adhered to, the laws of the state according to the prosecution's own evidence in the case. The dissenters also urged that permitting a federal prosecution for what they viewed as essentially a local murder would work "a revolutionary change in the balance of the political relations between the National Government and the States."
The majority, however, concluded that it sufficed to meet the "under color of state law" requirement that the "officers of the State were performing official duties," whether or not "the power they were authorized to exercise was misused." In so ruling, the Court opened the door for sweeping invocations of the long-unused Reconstruction-era federal civil rights statutes in federal court actions in later decades. The majority's ruling also bespoke something more—a rising willingness of the Court to address issues of racial injustice that would, within a decade, produce the seminal school-desegregation decision in Brown v. Board of Education (1954).
Mrs. Sherrod then speaks of another Sheriff, a man named L. Warren Johnson, in Baker County when she was growing up. Nicknamed "The Gator," Sheriff Johnson was "the law" in the Baker County of the 1960s and she rather matter as fact accuses him of being responsible for the murder of numerous blacks during his tenure as "the law." She passes on an anecdote on how he controlled passage of outsiders through the county extracting $150,000 a year in kickbacks.
She then returns to the murder of her father and how he was killed that night in March 1965 two months before the birth of his long-awaited son. She speaks eloquently and without malice about the impact on her life that her father's murder had. She notes that her father "wasn't the first black man killed by white men in Baker County" but she knew that she had to do something, ex malo bonum. Just 17 years old on the night of her father's death, she made the commitment that she would not leave the South and that she would devote her life to working for change.
She notes that when she made that commitment, she "made that commitment to black people and to black people only" and it is here that she begins to tell how her experience with a poor white farmer named Roger Spooner whose farm was in danger of foreclosure in November 1986 changed her thinking by making her realize the struggle wasn't between black and white but a struggle on behalf of the poor regardless of race. (The relevant portion of the video starts at the 16:05 minute mark). As she puts it "God will put things in your path that you realize that the struggle is really about poor people."
She then recounts the totality of that experience. At the time, Mrs. Sherrod was the head of a Georgia field office for the Federation of Southern Cooperative/Land Assistance Fund. She sent Mr. Spooner to a white lawyer figuring that "his own kind would take care of him." The white lawyer did nothing and that was when she realized "it was about [being] poor versus those who have and . . . it opened my eyes." Despite being on retainer for six months, the white lawyer did nothing to help his client navigate the maze that is the USDA. In May 1987, Mr. Spooner received his foreclosure notice when he again appealed to Mrs. Sherrod for help. Mrs. Sherrod accompanies Mr. Spooner to his lawyer only hear the lawyer tell Mr. Spooner "well you all are getting old, why don't you just let farm go?" Mrs. Sherrod was incredulous and told the lawyer that if Mr. Spooner couldn't file Chapter 12 that he should file Chapter 11 in order to save his farm.
A week before Mr. Spooner's property was to be auctioned off, Mr. Spooner again appealed to Mrs. Sherrod complaining that the lawyer wasn't doing anything. Mrs. Sherrod then leapt into a last ditch effort trying to find a lawyer finally finding one in Americus, Georgia who was able to save the Spooners' farm. The experience made Mrs. Sherrod realize that "it's really about those who have versus those who don't, you know and they could be black, white, they could be Hispanic, and it made me realize then that I needed to work to help poor people, those who don't have access the way others have."
"The only difference is the folks with money want to stay in power. It's always about money, y'all," she said. "God helped me to see that it's not just about black people. It's about poor people. I've come a long way."
"I knew that I couldn't live with hate, you know. As my mother has said to so many, if we had tried to live with hate in our hearts, we'd probably be dead now."
"But I've come to realize that we have to work together and -- you know, it's sad that we don't have a room full of white and blacks here tonight 'cause we have to overcome the divisions that we have. We have to get to the point as Tony Morrison said race exists but it doesn't matter. We have to work just as hard -- I know it's -- you know, that division is still here, but our communities are not going to thrive -- you know, our children won't have the communities that they need to be able to stay in and live in and have a good life if we can't figure this out, you all. White people, black people, Hispanic people, we all have to do our part to make our communities a safe place, a healthy place, a good environment."
This is a story of redemption.
A final note, I agree with Digby that the Administration's handling of this was an "act of sheer cowardice." Mrs. Sherrod should be reinstated to her position at USDA forthwith.