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Sherrod: 'We can make this a better place for all of us'

By the CNN Wire Staff
  • Shirley Sherrod says there's much to do to improve U.S. race relations
  • She turned down a job at USDA on Tuesday
  • Sherrod resigned under pressure in July after flap over a speech

Washington (CNN) -- A former Agriculture Department employee who was forced to resign last month, then received an apology and a job offer she turned down, said Wednesday she hopes to continue to work on the issue of race relations in America.

"I don't have any job opportunities at this point," Shirley Sherrod told CNN's "American Morning." "I have to just look at what's possible. I do need to take a little time to think and look at the future. I do plan to be busy."

Sherrod resigned under pressure as the USDA's director of rural development for Georgia. The controversy began after conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart posted a portion of a speech Sherrod gave online. In that speech, she seemed to suggest that she did not offer her full help to a white farmer.

The original post appeared to indicate the incident occurred while Sherrod was a USDA employee. News outlets quickly picked up on the story, and Sherrod was asked to resign. However, the incident took place during the 1980s, and Sherrod's speech in its unedited form showed that she was telling the story to illustrate that people should move beyond race. In addition, the white farmer mentioned by her came forward, crediting Sherrod with helping save his farm.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack apologized and offered Sherrod a post as the USDA's deputy director of the Office of Advocacy and Outreach -- a position designed to improve the department's civil rights efforts and image nationwide. Sherrod announced Tuesday she would not take that position.

"If Secretary Vilsack was the only person I had to deal with in the new position, maybe everything would have been OK," Sherrod said Wednesday. "But everyone else and everything else is still in place. I'm not sure I would have been free to do the job the way it should have been done. And you know, when you've been bitten once, it's hard to go back and put yourself out there."

She said she isn't sure things have changed within the department. "The secretary said he put some other methods in place so that what happened to me won't happen again. I certainly don't want to be the one to test that." But she said she hopes people won't be so quick to judge and act if a similar situation occurs.

"Just hearing from people, from running into people, it's amazing how many individuals who are not even working in the government feel that they have gained something from this whole situation I've been in.

"You know, I've always trusted in God to help lead me where I need to be, to help guide me," she said. "... that's what I'm looking for now."

She said she would like to get with friends and people she has worked with throughout the country to look at ways to make a difference.

"This is a group country and we have a lot of great people living here," she said. "We're not where we need to be in terms of race relations." She said her experience has shown the need to "pull the covers back again" and renew efforts to make the nation a good place for all ethnic groups.

"We can do this," she said. "We can make this a better place for all of us. We don't need to keep fighting each other."

Sherrod and Vilsack indicated Tuesday that while Sherrod will not return to the USDA as an official staffer, she is likely to serve in an unofficial advisory capacity to help address issues related to racism at the department.

In a joint news conference after their meeting Tuesday, Vilsack noted that Sherrod had expressed strong interest in a final settlement of claims made by African-American farmers against the USDA, as well as lawsuits raised by women, Hispanics

and Native Americans.

She said Vilsack pushed "really, really hard" for her to stay in the department during their roughly 90-minute meeting, but she just didn't "think at this point with all that has happened" that it would be possible to continue working there.

Vilsack repeated his previous assertions Tuesday that he did not speak with anyone at the White House before initially deciding to force Sherrod to step down. "This was my responsibility," he said. "I disappointed the president (and) the country. ... I have to live with that."

Sherrod said she accepted Vilsack's apology, but insisted the White House was behind the decision to ask for her resignation. However, she left open the possibility, in an interview with CNN's "Anderson Cooper 360" on Tuesday, that the request might have come from others working for President Barack Obama rather than the president himself.