Cheers to Andrew Breitbart! His lies and distortions may have created a tiny space for rational discourse on the subject of race.
OK. Perhaps that's too optimistic. But this much is certainly true: Because of a wickedly edited bit of video that blogger Breitbart disseminated, a civil servant's powerful story of overcoming her own racial bitterness will get a much wider hearing than it would have otherwise. Shirley Sherrod's speech about racial reconciliation would never have attracted national attention were it not for the malicious manipulations of Breitbart and the rest of the right-wing echo chamber.
You know the story by now: Breitbart, who swiftboated Acorn, uploaded a bit of video that purported to show Sherrod, who is black, bragging in a speech about her mistreatment of a white farmer. Too busy or too bullied by Breitbart to check the facts, her boss, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, demanded that she resign. She did, even while protesting the unfairness.
Now we know the rest of the story: Breitbart's video stood the truth on its head. Speaking to a Georgia NAACP chapter in March, Sherrod revealed a bit about her journey toward racial transcendence, a transformative tale about overcoming injustice and the bitterness it so often brings.
Employed until recently by the nonprofit Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund, Sherrod related an experience she'd had while working with the agency nearly 25 years ago. Back then, she'd initially hesitated to help a white farmer threatened with bankruptcy. Ultimately, however, she gave him such dedicated assistance that the now-elderly farmer, Roger Spooner, credits her with saving his land.
"God helped me to see that it's not just about black people, it's about poor people. I've come a long way," she told her Douglas, Ga., audience.
It's an inspiring tale of the sort Americans love to hear, a Hallmark narrative that begs for a memoir and a movie-of-the-week. But a serious conversation about race would demand attention to Sherrod's back story — the challenging circumstances that led to her initial antagonism toward whites.
Some pundits have called her NAACP speech "Obama-esque" because of its emphasis on racial reconciliation and its tough-minded message of self-help to young black listeners in the room. But as Sherrod has said, her childhood was marked by a harsh and violent racism from which a younger Obama, reared outside the continental United States, was protected. She knew a rank bigotry he has never known.
Her father, a farmer and community activist, was murdered in 1965 — shot in the back — reportedly by a white farmer who was never brought to justice. Later, white men burned a cross on her family's lawn.
Defiantly, Sherrod joined the civil rights movement and later — with her husband, Charles, and other black families — started an agricultural collective. But those efforts, too, were hampered by systemic racism.
When their 600 acres were damaged by drought in the 1970s, they sought an emergency loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, according to archives collected by the Middle Georgia Oral History Project. Like many other black farmers, they were denied the assistance routinely granted to whites, and they lost the land.
The USDA's discrimination against black farmers continued through the 1990s, when a black farmer sparked a series of legal challenges, most eventually settled in favor of the plaintiffs (the Sherrods were among them). In a press conference apologizing to Sherrod, Vilsack referred to his agency's "sordid" history of racial discrimination.
That little-noticed chapter in rural history helps explain the economic disparities that continue to haunt black Southerners, whose loss of agricultural holdings was a setback not only to them but also to subsequent generations. Many black farmers are still waiting for Congress to appropriate funds to pay their claims.
Such experiences have left some of Sherrod's black contemporaries bitter toward whites. She, however, overcame her prejudices — "I knew I couldn't live with hate," she said. She's a remarkable woman, and Breitbart unintentionally did us all a favor by bringing her to our attention. Her tale really is a teaching moment.
Cynthia Tucker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; follow her blog at http://blogs.ajc.com/cynthia-tucker.