Posted by Tania Kindersley.
I mentioned Shirley Sherrod in my previous post. I was tired after a long day of work, and I could not do the story justice, and anyway, lots of other people are writing about it today, so I thought I would leave it.
It turns out I can't leave it. When the news first came onto my radar last night, I thought it was a story about the extreme right wing and its craziness, the journalistic irresponsibility of Fox News, and, I am very sad to say, a rather spineless reaction from the Obama administration. I thought that, in a wider sense, it was a story about race. All those things are interesting enough in themselves, and the political bloggers in particular are doing a very good job of dissecting them. (I can't quite get an accurate reading of the timeline of this story because it moved so fast, but my sense is that it was the bloggers who moved quickest to debunk the attempted smear, while the traditional media ambled along behind. I might be wrong about this.)
Anyway, the reason I am writing this now is that I discover the story is not just about those things. It is not even mostly about those things. The story is about one extraordinary woman. Shirley Sherrod's father was shot to death by a white farmer when she was seventeen. When that ghastly tragedy happened, she made a promise to herself that she would not leave the South, but stay, and try to make a difference, not just for black people but for everybody.
Let us just pause for one moment and imagine that. Walk for one moment in that seventeen-year-old girl's shoes.
So, many years later, this remarkable individual gives a speech in which she tells about how she started that making a difference. She tells about helping families to save their farms when they were threatened with foreclosure. She tells about the first white family she was called upon to help. She was used to saving black families, because they were losing their land at a frightening rate, and when she first came into contact with a white couple in need it crossed her mind that she might not give them her very best efforts. Then, she told herself that this was an unworthy thought, saved their farm, and used that moment as a constant reminder that her work was, as she puts it, not about race, but about poor people.
The white couple, it may be noted, have gone on television to say they love her and owe her everything.
There is no excuse for prejudice of any kind, from any quarter, but if your father had been murdered by a white man, against whom an all-white jury refused to bring charges so that the killer was never brought to justice, there might be a little latitude if you harboured suspicions about people with a skin colour lighter than your own. I'm just saying.
Shirley Sherrod did not allow herself that latitude. This admirable woman, who rose above personal tragedy and racial animus to devote her life to public service was, last night, sacked from her job at the Department of Agriculture, branded 'shameful' and 'intolerable' by the 'appalled' NAACP, and accused of racism by Fox News.
Today, of course, there have been scrambling, abject apologies. A great deal of regret has been expressed, most of all because a private woman has been cast into the merciless glare of the public spotlight. The man who put her there, Andrew Breitbart, has not apologised.
I am going to say something slightly odd. I am grateful to Andrew Breitbart. He did a shitty thing. He took remarks out of context to make a good woman look like a bigot. But if he had not, I should never have known the story of Shirley Sherrod, and I am really glad I do. She is my woman of the year, without a doubt. It's not just because of who she is, and what she has done in her life, it is also because of the grace she has shown over the last couple of days. Do you know what she said when asked whether she was angry about the injustice shown to her? She said: 'I can't hold a grudge'. That is sheer, unadulterated class. And that is her victory, in the end. Just by being herself, she makes everyone else involved in this shoddy story look small.
I don't often put up videos here. I think they look clunky and I am always afraid the links won't work. But this one, if you can make it play, is really worth watching. Rachel Maddow does a wonderful job of encapsulating the whole thing into thirteen minutes.