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Shirley Sherrod, Ousted from Agriculture Department, Rejects Offer to Return

StoryAugust 25, 2010
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Shirley Sherrod, ousted from her job at the Agriculture Department last month, has rejected an offer to return to the USDA. Sherrod was forced out shortly after a right-wing website ran a video clip that was deceptively edited to make it appear that she was racist toward white farmers. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack forced Sherrod to resign shortly after the video was posted. Vilsack met with Sherrod Tuesday morning to try and convince her to return to the department. The two also discussed a settlement pending in the Senate for black farmers who have been victims of racism. We speak with John Boyd, the founder and president of the National Black Farmers Association. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Shirley Sherrod, ousted from her job at the Agriculture Department last month, has rejected an offer to return to the USDA. She was forced out of her job after a right-wing website run by Andrew Breitbart posted a deceptively edited video of a speech she gave in March that appeared to show her admitting she withheld help from a white farmer twenty-four years ago for racial reasons. What the edited video did not show is Sherrod describing how she ended up going to great lengths to help the farmer save his land.

In an embarrassing move for the Obama administration, the Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack forced Sherrod to resign after the video was posted. Vilsack later apologized, and President Obama called her personally to express his regret. Vilsack met with Sherrod on Tuesday morning to try and convince her to return to the department. The two discussed a settlement pending in the Senate for black farmers who have been victims of racism, as well as other civil rights issues.

Vilsack spoke at a news conference with Shirley Sherrod shortly afterwards.

    SECREARY TOM VILSACK: We had a far and good conversation. Shirley was interested in the progress that we’re trying to make in terms of settling lawsuits that have been filed against the department for civil rights violations, commonly referred to as the Pigford case, which Shirley unfortunately knows far too much about as a plaintiff in that case early in the process. And I think it’s fair to say that we both feel it’s appropriate and necessary for the Senate to take action as quickly as possible to make sure that the appropriations for those cases are made and that we get those cases settled as quickly as possible, as well as the cases that have been filed against the department by Native Americans and Hispanic and women farmers.

    I did my best, I think it’s fair to say. I did my best to try to get her to come to USDA, to stay at USDA, on a full-time basis. We talked about the Office of Advocacy and Outreach and what her unique skills could bring to that office. We also talked about the opportunity that would be made available, if that was not something she was interested in doing, to return to Georgia in her position as the state director. For reasons that Shirley will get into, that doesn’t fit what she needs, what she wants and what she deserves.

    As I said earlier, this was my responsibility, and I had to take full responsibility for it, and I continue to take full responsibility for it. I will take it for as long as I live. This was — you know, I pride myself on the work that I do. And I know that I disappointed the President. I disappointed this administration. I disappointed the country. I disappointed Shirley. I have to live with that.

AMY GOODMAN: Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack asked Shirley Sherrod to become the deputy director of the Office of Advocacy and Outreach, a new position designed to bolster the USDA’s dismal record on civil rights. He had also given her a chance to return to her former job. Sherrod explained why she declined the offer.

    SHIRLEY SHERROD: I want to say thank you to the Secretary for the updates on Pigford and the discussion we’ve had had this morning about what happened and the steps that will be taken in the future so that hopefully no one else will have to deal with what I’ve had to deal with over the last four or five weeks. I enjoyed my work at USDA. As most of you know, I didn’t work in government prior to about a year ago now. I only lasted eleven months. But I did enjoy that work and would want to see that work continue. I just don’t think at this point, with all that has happened, I can do that either in the new position that was offered or as state director for rural development in Georgia. It doesn’t mean that I’m not interested in that work, because I certainly am. I was working on many of those issues long before coming to the government and would hope to be able to work on many of those issues in the future. So I’ve had lots of support from around the country. I’ve had many, many, many thousands of pieces of mail. Many of those I would like to answer. I need a little time to be able to deal with that, to sort of take a break from some of all that I’ve had to deal with over the last few weeks.

    The Secretary did push really, really hard for me to stay and work from the inside in the position. It is a new position. I, you know, look at what happened now, and I know he’s apologized, and I accept that. I just — and a new process is in place, and I hope that it works. I don’t want to be the one to test it. So, you know, I think there is — I think I can be helpful to him and the department if I just take a little break and look at how I can be more helpful in the future.

AMY GOODMAN: Shirley Sherrod was Georgia’s director of rural development at the USDA. The department has a long history of discrimination against black farmers who sought out loans and other aid, and the government this year settled a second round of damages stemming from a class action lawsuit originally settled in 1999. Earlier this month, the Senate failed to approve nearly $5 billion for the settlement. Hundreds of black farmers held a rally in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, yesterday, calling on the Senate to approve the funds.

We’re joined now, in these last few minutes, by John Boyd, founder and president of the National Black Farmers Association, joining us from Raleigh, North Carolina.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, John Boyd. The reference to the Pigford case, can you explain what it is?

JOHN BOYD: Well, the Pigford case is really the black farmers’ case, where — and the first case that was filed in 1997, it was settled in 1999, where 14,000 black farmers received $50,000 per farmer for the act of discrimination by the Department of Agriculture. Nine thousand black farmers were denied. And the Department of Agriculture Office of Civil Rights was closed under the Reagan administration in 1981 and didn’t reopen until 1997 under the Clinton administration, when they put resources into the Department of Agriculture, and they found thousands and thousands of civil rights complaints that were in the Office of Civil Rights that were never processed. And the Department of Agriculture fought us on class notification to those farmers, so therefore 80,000 black farmers came after the filing deadline. And that’s what brings us to the point where we are now.

In February, I settled the settlement agreement with the Department of Agriculture, Department of Justice and the black farmers for $1.15 billion. In 2008, there was an act of Congress that allowed those cases to be heard based on its merit. Senator Obama, now President Obama, sponsored that bill and the farm bill. So we’ve had a very, very long troublesome process trying to get the compensation to the farmers. I’ve been working on this issue for twenty-six years, trying to get the payments to the black farmers.

AMY GOODMAN: How many farmers are you talking about? And compare the average size of a farmer’s — of a farm owned by a black farmer with white farmers. And in this huge egg recall, talk about what corporate farming means.

JOHN BOYD: Yes, well, the average size of a black farm is fifty acres. And as you move out towards the Midwest, the average in size of a corporate farm is probably a thousand acres. And in the egg recall, I was talking about a piece on that, a segment on CNN yesterday, where basically 200 egg producers produce 95 percent of America’s eggs. So there’s basically no small farmers that are in that process. And I’ve been fighting for years to try to get small farmers to produce eggs and sell commercially, but there’s basically no support from USDA to do that and to get contracts. So there’s lots of work to be done for small farmers. But, you know, black farmers have been losing land at three times greater rate than any other race in this country, and the Department of Agriculture played a tremendous role in us losing — my earpiece is — just losing all of the access to credit and things of that nature. So, we’ve had a very, very long, troublesome time with the Department of Agriculture.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, w just have thirty seconds, but, John Boyd, the significance of the apology and the meeting between Sherrod and the Agriculture Secretary Vilsack yesterday? What do you think is most important that came out of it?

JOHN BOYD: Well, I think the fact that Mrs. Sherrod handled herself with dignity and respect. And she’d done a tremendous job with showing the country that when you were done wrong, that you could turn it into a positive. So, I want to give thumbs up to Shirley Sherrod and the way that she handled it, and she showed the country by —- just because someone done you wrong doesn’t mean that you have to be bitter about it, and she’s going to use that in a positive way. But I do think the Agriculture Department -—

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we have to leave it there. John Boyd, thank you for joining us.

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