Dear Obama, Learn From Shirley Sherrod and Stop Letting the Right-Wing Propaganda Machine Win

The Right Wing
Editor's note: On Wednesday, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack issued Shirley Sherrod a public apology, and reportedly offered Sherrod a new job at USDA.
“It hurts me that they didn’t even try to attempt to see what is happening here, they didn’t care.”

-- Shirley Sherrod, on her forced resignation from USDA within hours of the right-wing media airing a heavily edited video of Sherrod speaking at an NAACP event. The edited video purportedly portrayed Sherrod and the NAACP as racist; the full video of Sherrod’s speech showed otherwise.

Dear Mr. President,

With all due respect, it’s time to man up. It is time, way past time for you to grow into the job you were elected to do, and promised to do. It is time to stand up and be the man we hope we elected. It is time to justify that hope, and the trust that was placed in you. It is time to pick up the mantle of history that has been entrusted to you and prove yourself worthy of carrying it forward.

Too much is at stake now. Too many people are beginning to think their faith in you was misplaced. What’s worse is you are proving them right.

Strike one was Van Jones.

Strike two was ACORN.

And now Shirley Sherrod had become strike three.

Yours has become an administration that remains loyal to people who are and have been part of the problem. (Any problem we’re currently facing. Pick one.)

It’s an administration in which Ben Bernanke can keep a job, but Van Jones can’t.

It’s an administration in which Larry Summers can keep a job, but Shirley Sherrod can’t.

It’s an administration in which Tim Geithner can keep a job, but Elizabeth Warrenmay not be able to get one.

It’s an administration that leaves twisting in the wind good people who are trying to be a part of the solution, but have the misfortune of being targeted by smear campaigns from a political right-wing you clearly fear more than you respect the concerns of not just progressives who worked hard to put you into office, but the very people Sherrod spoke of in her unedited speech.

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 Here is an excerpt of the speech (the full transcript is available at the link):

But where am I going with this? You know, I couldn’t say 45 years ago — I couldn’t stand here and say what I’m saying — what I will say to you tonight. Like I told you, God helped me to see that it’s not just about black people — it’s about poor people. And 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 where, 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 — the communities that they need to be able to stay in and live in and — 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.

That’s when it was revealed to me that, ya’ll, it’s about poor versus those who have, and not so much about white — it is about white and black, but it’s not — you know, it opened my eyes, ’cause I took him to one of his own and I put him in his hand, and felt okay, I’ve done my job. But, during that time we would have these injunctions against the Department of Agriculture and — so, they couldn’t foreclose on him. And I want you to know that the county supervisor had done something to him that I have not seen yet that they’ve done to any other farmer, black or white. And what they did to him caused him to not be able to file Chapter 12 bankruptcy.

Well, working with him made me see that it’s really about those who have versus those who don’t, you know. And they could be black; they could be 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.

All week long, we’ve listened to a debate about racism within the Tea Party. Most of it has consisted of little else than hot air. But Shirley Sherrod’s speech contains much that could be a positive addition to the debate over racism. There’s much wisdom there, actually. And Sherrod isn’t the only person who has it. The irony is that Sherrod is an example of someone who was changed by her experience, and learned to move past her own racism to see someone in need of help and try to give it to him.

If anything, she should have been cited as an example of what we need more people to do. The sad irony is that she was thrown under the bus instead, and a valuable “teachable moment” went with her.

I don’t know Shirley Sherrod personally, but I feel I know something about her, because I grew up around women like her much of my life — who have seen and experienced enough grinding poverty and injustice to last them a lifetime, and who work in their own ways to challenge injustice and fight poverty in their families and communities. As Jill Tubman pointed out, there are millions of black women like Shirley Sherrod, “who run our schools, hospitals, churches and…voting precincts,” and her treatment sends a clear message to them.

Like Sherrod, I’m from Georgia. My parents raised us in a North Georgia suburb, but they grew up in South Georgia. Their parents were sharecroppers, as were their grandparents and great-grandparents before them, going all the way back to slavery. Like generations before them, my parents grew up picking cotton, until the military draft and marriage took them far beyond the fields they grew up in. (While conducting some genealogical research in college, I traced one branch of my family back to a slave ancestor. I found the location of the plantation on which he was born and which he left after emancipation. I even found the slaveowner whose surname my ancestor retained even after emancipation, that was passed down the generations, and that I bear today.)

I don’t know how old Sherrod is, but she seems to be roughly from the same generation as my parents. She’s seen much of the same things they’ve seen. She saw her father murdered by a white man who went unpunished — something so common at that time in the South that many African American families have similar stories to tell, or were touched by similar events.

I grew up listening to both my parents — my mother and my late father — tell stories of those days. And I’m willing to bet that if I picked up the phone and called my mom right now, she’d have the same insight that Sherrod offered — that poor whites and poor blacks have been living cheek by jowl in the South long enough for some of them to figure out that there’s only about a dime's worth of difference between them and it’s far outweighed by what they have in common — not having, as I heard my mom say often, “a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out of.”

Sherrod is unsure whether she'll return to USDA. I can’t say I blame her. Your administration, and in fact your party, has amply demonstrated that when good people who are “reviled and persecuted,” and  “all manner of evil” is said against them falsely, will be left to twist in the wind:

Be abandoned to a bad situation, especially be left to incur blame, as in "The governor denied knowing it was illegal and left his aide to twist in the wind." It is also put as leave twisting in the wind, meaning “abandon or strand in a difficult situation,” as in "Sensing a public relations disaster, the President left the Vice-President twisting in the wind." This expression, at first applied to a President’s nominees who faced opposition and were abandoned by the President, alludes to the corpse of a hanged man left dangling and twisting in the open air. [Slang; early 1970s]

Being a black male from the South, the phrase holds special meaning for me, and it’s an apt description of what has happened to Shirley Sherrod while your administration saw fit to stand aside, and seek as much distance as possible.

What’s perhaps most disappointing is that you — a president cited as an example of the fulfillment of Martin Luther King’s dream — and your administration abandoned to the mercies of right-wing media a woman whose work exemplifies the work King himself turned to near the end of his life. His work on race and discrimination led him to address the very issue Sherrod cited in her speech: “It’s not just about black people — it’s about poor people." King’s eyes had been similarly opened.

In his book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?, King argued that the United States must change its attitude and approach toward the treatment of its poor citizens. He reasoned that since poverty knew no racial boundaries, he couldn’t limit his call for congressional action to assist only black Americans.

“In the treatment of poverty nationally, one fact stands out,” King wrote in 1967. “There are twice as many white poor as [black] poor in the United States. Therefore I will not dwell on the experiences of poverty that derive from racial discrimination, but will discuss the poverty that affects white and [black] alike.”

This was a radical—and unpopular—change for the preacher who is best-known for pushing voting, employment, housing and other civil rights for black Americans. At this point in his career, during what would become the final months of his life, he was widening his field of vision to seek an end to poverty among all Americans.

What Sherrod spoke of was truly a road to Damascus moment when the scales fell from her eyes and she saw that person in front of her was not a “white farmer” but a human being needing help in the midst of a struggle.

Less than six months before he was killed, King launched what he called the Poor People’s Campaign. Its focuses were issues that are still crying out to be addressed today: Jobs, income and housing.

Jobs, income and housing were the main goals of the Poor People’s Campaign. The campaign would help the poor by dramatizing their needs, uniting all races under the commonality of hardship and presenting a plan to start to a solution. Under the “economic bill of rights,” the Poor People’s Campaign asked for the federal government to prioritize helping the poor with a $30 billion anti-poverty package that included a commitment to full employment, a guaranteed annual income measure and more low-income housing. The Poor People’s Campaign was part of the second phase of the civil rights movement. While the first phase had exposed the problems of segregation, King hoped to address the “limitations to our achievements” with a second, broader phase.

After King’s assassination, the campaign ended unsuccessfully, and the economic bill of rights was never passed. Today, King’s economic dream remains deferred.

…If anything, the recent economic meltdown and recession have made the injustice of poverty even more profound, especially in a society where the top percentile enjoys undreamed-of prosperity.

Unemployment among African Americans is nearly double that of whites, according to the National Urban League’s latest State of Black America report. Black men and women in this country make 62 cents on the dollar earned by whites. Less than half of black and Hispanic families own homes and they are three times more likely to live below the poverty line.

The nonpartisan group United for a Fair Economy has issued a report that features Martin Luther King Jr. on the cover with the title, “State of the Dream 2010: Drained.” Dr. King’s dream is in jeopardy, the report’s authors write, “The Great Recession has pulled the plug on communities of color, draining jobs and homes at alarming rates while exacerbating persistent inequalities of wealth and income.”

Nor will a recovery ameliorate the crisis. “A rising tide does not lift all boats,” United for a Fair Economy’s report goes on to say, “because the public policies, economic structures and unwritten rules of racism form mountains and ridgelines, and hills and valleys that shape our economic landscape. As a result, a rising economic tide fills the rivers and reservoirs of some, while leaving others dry and parched.”

This is a perilous moment. The individualist, greed-driven free-market ideology that both our major parties have pursued is at odds with what most Americans really care about. Popular support for either party has struck bottom, as more and more agree that growing inequality is bad for the country, that corporations have too much power, that money in politics has corrupted our system, and that working families and poor communities need and deserve help because the free market has failed to generate shared prosperity – its famous unseen hand has become a closed fist.

In very real ways (just ask the millions of Americans who have waited 44-plus days for Congress to extend their unemployment benefits, so that they may stave off utter destitution) we are still ruled by that closed fist. That’s because we still don’t hear King.

It’s become a TV ritual: Every year in mid-January, around the time of Martin Luther King’s birthday, we get perfunctory network news reports about “the slain civil rights leader.”

The remarkable thing about this annual review of King’s life is that several years — his last years — are totally missing, as if flushed down a memory hole.


It’s because national news media have never come to terms with what Martin Luther King Jr. stood for during his final years.

In the early 1960s, when King focused his challenge on legalized racial discrimination in the South, most major media were his allies. Network TV and national publications graphically showed the police dogs and bullwhips and cattle prods used against Southern blacks who sought the right to vote or to eat at a public lunch counter.

But after passage of civil rights acts in 1964 and 1965, King began challenging the nation’s fundamental priorities. He maintained that civil rights laws were empty without “human rights” — including economic rights. For people too poor to eat at a restaurant or afford a decent home, King said, anti-discrimination laws were hollow.

Noting that a majority of Americans below the poverty line were white, King developed a class perspective. He decried the huge income gaps between rich and poor, and called for “radical changes in the structure of our society” to redistribute wealth and power.

“True compassion,” King declared, “is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

And we choose not to hear people who are carrying on the unfinished work of King’s dream, people like Sherrod, whose work, if done on a larger scale, could go a long way to addressing the economic conditions that catalyze anger, anxiety and frustration into movements much like the Tea Party.

Without a doubt, King understood that the civil rights movement and the efforts to end segregation were not just about African Americans. The brutality that segregation, lynching, Jim Crow, and slavery visited upon African Americans is well documented. But the man who said “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly,” understood that systems of brutality are a two way street. He saw that the system of segregation brutalized the bodies, minds and spirits of both blacks and whites, and was therefore harmful to both.

As progressives, we are working to change — to heal, actually — the disastrous results of 30 years of conservative failure and its consequences for everything from our economy to infrastructure to health care. In doing so, we can’t afford to ignore that these consequences have been particularly devastating for the very states which have come the strongest and most strident objections to health care reform, the stimulus and other progressive attempts to alleviate those consequences.

…We know the numbers. We’ve read the reports, and used the statistics — with a dash or two of snark — to point out the paradox of people supporting policies against their own interests, and opposing policies that would improve their lot.

But the man who dreamed that “sons of slaves and sons of slaveowners” would someday sit down together dreamed it for both the sons of slaves and the sons of slaveowners — even if the latter rejected that dream as passionately as the former desired it. He wanted to free both, when he said “If physical death is the price that I must pay to free my white brothers and sisters from a permanent death of the spirit, then nothing can be more redemptive.”

If progressives hope to achieve health care for all, an economy that works for all, a safe and secure world for all, decent jobs, livable wages — or any of our other goals — we have to want all of this for the red-faced man yelling about immigrants on the National Mall, and the woman standing up in a townhall meeting, waving a birth certificate in a ziplock bag and shouting “I want my country back!”

Instead we choose the closed fist. We respond to the threat of the closed fist more immediately than we respond to the very issues Sherrod addressed in her speech and in her work.

It took less time for your administration to respond to Andrew Breitbart’s deceptively edited video than it took for you to stand and fight for health care reform.

It took less time than it has to break the Senate filibuster on extending unemployment benefits.

It took less time than it has thus far to pass legislation that will create jobs, or extend aid to states that could potentially save 900,000 jobs, or keep hundreds of thousand of teachers on the job.

In all of the above, the shadow of the closed fist has loomed — both in the form of threats of filibuster and obstruction, and threats of violence — and fear of it has stalled the work that we — the coalition of black and white and Latino, young and old, poor, working class, and middle class, etc. — elected you and trusted you to do.

That trust has been abused, and must now be earned back.

Even Glenn Beck (in an irony your administration's panic made possible) and former Tea Party leader Mark Williams (booted from the Tea Party for his actual blatant racism) were out in front of you, defending Sherrod while your administration was reviewing a situation that even my 7-year-old son would immediately recognize and summarize by saying “It’s not fair.”

But, beyond this event, you have another job to do: prove to those of us who voted for you, and the change you promised and claimed to represent, not just that you still are that guy but that you ever were.

It’s not an impossible task. Despite all of the above, some of us still hope our trust was justified, and will meet you somewhere between here and the middle — if you decide to move in our direction and be the kind of leader we hoped and believed you would be, the kind of leader Shirley Sherrod has been in her community. If you truly want to be the change you said you wanted, and that we desperately want to see in the world, show us, and give us reason to join you again.

But the first move must be yours.

It’s time to man up. It is time to stand up.

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