Now the former Georgia director of rural development for the U.S. Department of Agriculture is fending off allegations that she is racist because of something she said during a speech before the NAACP last spring. It was a few sentences in a story she told about an epiphany that changed her way of thinking two dozen years ago; the problems of farmers were not defined as black vs. white but “poor vs. those who have.”
She was asked to resign her job with the Obama administration earlier this week when a conservative blogger posted some of her comments. Her boss, the secretary of agriculture, said he would look at the situation again once complaints were raised that those sentences needed to be considered in the context of her 43-minute talk to an NAACP meeting in Douglas, in far south Georgia. Wednesday afternoon, the White House said USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack apologized to Sherrod, but stopped short of saying whether she will get her job back.
“Things would be in her favor, even if she didn’t get her job back. She will always have a place in the movement for justice," said Jerry Pennick, head of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, based in East Point. Sherrod was the director of the Georgia field office for that organization before she was appointed to work with the USDA.
Pennick said Sherrod helped thousands of farmers, not only in Georgia, but around the country.
He said he talked to Sherrod after she was forced out.
“She was hurt in the beginning and surprised at the reaction to it," he said. "But she’s a strong person. We had no doubt that she would get through it and she would come out a better person. And it seems like that’s what going to happen.”
Grace Miller, Sherrod’s mother, said she remembers the night that most likely nudged her daughter into public service. Until then, Sherrod has said several times, she was determined to move out of the South and away from farming.
She changed her mind a few days after her father was killed, an event Sherrod often includes in her talks.
Sherrod’s father, Hosie Miller, had a dispute with a man over cows that had come into his pasture. The neighbor insisted that three of Miller’s cows were his. Miller said he would call the “law” to settle the dispute. As Hosie Miller was closing the gate, he was shot in the back, the family says.
Grace Miller said that the neighbor was not held accountable.
After the shooting, “Shirley would be off by herself,” Grace Miller said about her daughter, the oldest of four girls and a son.
“One night she was outside," Miller said. "The moon was shining. And it was going through her mind, what would she do? She decided she would stay [in south Georgia] and make a difference.”
She enrolled in Fort Valley State College. She later went on to receive a B.A. in sociology from Albany State University and an M.A. in community development from Antioch University in Yellow Springs, Ohio.
“She was not able to go to jail like the rest of them [protesters],” Grace Miller said. “She was off at school. She really wanted to go [to jail].”
While she was at Fort Valley, one night about 40 white men burned a cross in her family’s yard, Miller said, and that added to her daughter's distress over race relations in her home county of Baker.
After graduation, Sherrod married a minister and immersed herself more in the civil rights movement, according to her son, Kenyatta.
“She was a little more strict on us because of the calls they got … from people saying they were going to snatch us [Kenyatta Sherrod and his older sister] because of what my father was doing.”
Sherrod also took a position working with farmers in trouble.
“I want to do all I can to help rural communities be what they can,” Sherrod said in the videotaped talk last March. “When I made that commitment, I was making that commitment to black people and to black people only. ... But you know God will show you things and he’ll put things in your path that you realize that the struggle is really about poor people.”
Kenyatta Sherrod remembers when his family’s farm was in foreclosure in the early 1980s. It was huge -- 6,000 acres -- and several people lived on it, raising vegetables and livestock that they would share with each other. Though several people had a stake in it, the property was in the Sherrods' names.
“They lost the farm,” Kenyatta Sherrod said. “Life was different after that. We didn’t have a lot after that.”
He remembers his parents having trouble paying for utilities.
“Early on, sometime after we lost our farm, I caught her crying over the bills," he said. "We had a real low time after we lost the farm.”
Now Sherrod is a grandmother to four girls, her son's children.
“Her granddaughters are her world. They do nothing wrong,” Kenyatta Sherrod said of his children’s relationship with their grandmother.
When the controversy started over Sherrod’s comments, she was more concerned with the reaction the children -- ages 11, 7, 5 and 16 months -- would have.
“She was worried about what my daughters would think when they heard it,” Kenyatta Sherrod said.
The biggest concern for three of the girls was that they wanted to continue coming to Athens to visit their grandmother, who kept an apartment there for work.
“So I [explained] she’s deciding to come back, so well have fun with her here [in Albany],” Kenyatta Sherrod said.