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USDA employee resigns over statements about white farmer

By the CNN Wire Staff
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Ex-USDA worker explains racial remarks
  • Shirley Sherrod says her remarks were taken out of context
  • Sherrod says the point of her story was to unite people
  • NAACP backs agriculture secretary's decision to accept resignation of Shirley Sherrod
  • Sherrod says she didn't use "the full force" to help white farmer while at nonprofit

(CNN) -- A black Agriculture Department employee who resigned after a video clip surfaced of her talking about a white farmer said Tuesday her remarks were taken out of context.

Shirley Sherrod, the department's former state director of rural development for Georgia, told CNN the incident she discusses in the clip took place more than two decades ago -- and that she recounted it to an audience to make the point that people should move beyond race.

"I was speaking to that group, like I've done many groups, and I tell them about a time when I thought the issue was race and race only," Sherrod told CNN's "American Morning" from her home in Albany, Georgia. The incident took place in 1986, while she worked for a nonprofit and before she worked for the USDA, she said. "I was telling the story of how working with him helped me to see the issue is not about race. It's about those who have versus those who do not have."

Sherrod resigned Monday after conservative media outlets aired the video, in which she says she did not give the white farmer "the full force of what I could do" to help him avoid foreclosure.

Video: USDA worker resigns over remarks

Conservative website publisher Andrew Breitbart originally posted the video, which was quickly picked up by Fox News. The video claims Sherrod's remarks were delivered March 27 to an NAACP Freedom Fund banquet, but it is not clear that is the case, nor is it clear where the event was held or how many people were in attendance.

The poor-quality video shows Sherrod telling her audience that the farmer she was working with "took a long time ... trying to show me he was superior to me." As a result, she said, she "didn't give him the full force of what I could do. I did enough."

To prove she had done her job, she said, she took him to a white lawyer.

"I figured that if I take him to one of them, that his own kind would take care of him," she said.

Sherrod mentioned that the lawyer would help the farmer with a bankruptcy filing but did not say in the clip whether his farm was saved.

She told CNN that at the time, she was working with a nonprofit association aimed at assisting farmers in Georgia and the Southeast. In the end, she said, the lawyer did not help the farmer and she "had to frantically find a lawyer who would file a Chapter 11 to stop the foreclosure."

She said she, the farmer and his wife wound up being friends.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Monday he had accepted Sherrod's resignation.

"There is zero tolerance for discrimination at USDA, and I strongly condemn any act of discrimination against any person," Vilsack said. "We have been working hard through the past 18 months to reverse the checkered civil rights history at the department and take the issue of fairness and equality very seriously."

Sherrod told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution there were white people, including a mayor, at the banquet where she spoke. "Why would I do something racist if they were there?"

The NAACP issued a statement late Monday backing Vilsack's decision.

"Racism is about the abuse of power. Sherrod had it in her position at USDA. According to her remarks, she mistreated a white farmer in need of assistance because of his race," said Benjamin Todd Jealous, president and CEO of the civil rights group. "We are appalled by her actions, just as we are with abuses of power against farmers of color and female farmers."

"Her actions were shameful," Jealous continued. "While she went on to explain in the story that she ultimately realized her mistake, as well as the common predicament of working people of all races, she gave no indication she had attempted to right the wrong she had done to this man."

Sherrod said it was "unfortunate that the NAACP would make a statement without even checking to see what happened. This was 24 years ago, and I'm telling a story to try to unite people."

She said she tried to explain to USDA officials, "but for some reason, the stuff Fox and the Tea Party does is scaring the administration. I told them to get the whole tape and look at the whole tape and see how I tell people we have to get beyond race and work together."

Asked why did she resigned instead of fought, Sherrod said, "I didn't have any support from USDA. What would I do?"

James Peterson, assistant professor of English and Africana studies at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, called the clip "a textbook case of institutional racism. Historically, it's been white against black, or white against whatever person of color is in question, but this is still institutional racism. We can't endorse it."

But he said, given later remarks made by Sherrod in the clip, "it's clear that this is an anecdote ... It is clear she is using this as an anecdote to talk about how she's progressed from this moment, and we can't let the weight of historical issues with race shape our individual issues.

"I think she is using this an anecdote to work through her own issues but also to show the audience we can move beyond and transcend some of these circumstances," he said.

The conservative media outlets tied the video to the NAACP's recent resolution calling on the Tea Party movement to repudiate racist elements within it that have displayed such items as images of President Barack Obama with a bone through his nose and the White House with a lawn full of watermelons. The controversy has led one Tea Party group to oust another because of a blog posting by the second group's leader.

Tea Party Express leader Mark Williams posted on his blog a faux letter from NAACP president Benjamin Jealous to President Abraham Lincoln in which Williams ridicules the organization's use of "colored" in its historic name and uses multiple other stereotypes to bolster his point.

The National Tea Party Foundation expelled Williams' organization from its coalition as a result.