Shirley Sherrod & USDA Sec. Vilsack committed to battling discrimination

By Jon H. Harsch

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.

Washington, Aug. 24 – In an emotional USDA press conference Tuesday which ended with a very unusual round of applause, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack explained why he's offered unfairly ousted Georgia State Rural Development Director Shirley Sherrod a choice of her Rural Development job back or a new civil rights enforcement job at USDA headquarters as Deputy Director of the Office of Advocacy and Outreach.

Earlier, Vilsack met with Sherrod and top USDA officials for 90 minutes to discuss options for her at USDA. At the press conference, Sherrod acknowledged that she “was tempted” to accept a position at USDA but decided instead to “take a break” while holding open the possibility of working with USDA on civil rights issues in the future. She said “We do need to work on the issues of discrimination and racism in this country and I certainly would like to play my role in trying to help deal with it.” 

Shirley Sherrod meeting with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack before their press conference Tuesday. Photo: USDA 

Vilsack repeated his regret for having decided to fire Sherrod based on selectively edited remarks by Sherrod which incorrectly portrayed her as prejudiced against a white farmer she in fact helped to avoid foreclosure. He said that after he became fully aware that Sherrod's remarks had been taken totally out of context, “I asked for her forgiveness and she was gracious enough to give it to me.” He added that he pressed Sherrod hard to have her return to USDA. In response, Sherrod explained that she enjoyed her 11 months working as USDA Rural Development Director in Georgia “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.”

Vilack said that as a former plaintiff in the successful Pigford lawsuit challenging USDA discrimination against black farmers, Sherrod used their meeting to discuss “lawsuits that have been filed against the department for civil rights violations.” Vilsack said he and Sherrod “both feel that it is 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.”

Vilsack explained that in her USDA work in Georgia, Sherrod “was beginning a process of going into counties and areas of her state where there was deep poverty, high unemployment, not much outreach from previous efforts by USDA. She was making strides to make sure that those counties that had been ignored in the process were recognized, appreciated and helped.”

Vilsack said he hopes the painful past month for Sherrod provides an opportunity to highlight that USDA “is trying to engage in a cultural transformation so that our workforce is modernized and as diverse as the country is and is engaged in an effort to try to get the programs of USDA to the people who are most in need, not necessarily the best connected people but the people who are most in need.” He said that despite his unfortunate mistake in asking Sherrod to resign her USDA position, “I came into this office committed to trying to close the chapter of civil rights that has been a difficult chapter for USDA and a very sordid chapter.”

Sherrod joined the Secretary is calling for a new approach. She said “We are a great country and there are people who care. We are hearing too much from those who would want to point out the negative right now and I really would like to concentrate on the positive.”
For more on the Pigford lawsuit filed by Black Farmers, click:

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