Whatever happened to getting the facts before you publish a story—or before you call for someone to lose their job about something they may have said? That seems to have been a due process step that the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the White House ignored in the forced resignation of the director of Agriculture’s Georgia office, Shirley Sherrod, for the content of a speech she gave to a local branch of the NAACP in March. The Administration’s knee-jerk reaction was to throw Sherrod under a bus.  It’s not too late for President Obama to undo the damage.

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When we first heard the charges about Shirley Sherrod’s alleged statements about providing a lower level of assistance to white farmers than black farmers in danger of losing their land, something struck us as wrong. At NPQ, we have written about the struggles of black farmers against the U.S. Department of Agriculture in both the Cohen Report (here, here, and here) and elsewhere on our website (here, here and here), and our initial exposure to the issue was due to Shirley Sherrod when she worked for the nonprofit Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund.

We saw the video clip of a talk by Sherrod that sounded like she had not offered her full assistance—when she worked for the nonprofit 24 years ago, not in her until-this-week position with the USDA—to a white farmer, but something didn’t ring true. Unlike the White House, the USDA, and some major nonprofit leadership organizations, we took a deep breath and waited a day. Lo and behold, the Sherrod video was only a partial, edited clip shown on Andrew Breitbart’s conservative website, to make it appear that she was practicing reverse racism. Watch the full video here.

In a full video of the speech, Sherrod told that story in public as an example of how whites and African-Americans had to work together around common interests—and she actually helped the white farmer whose attested to the fact.  The conservative press, primarily Fox News, jumped to the idea that Sherrod was a reverse racist operating in the hallways of Agriculture:

  • The Washington Examiner referred to her as a “racist Obama administration member;”
  • Fox News highlighted her laughing as she described the white farmer’s request for assistance;
  • An op-ed writer for the Dakota Voice headlined that Sherrod had “confessed her racism to the NAACP;”
  • Newt Gingrich appeared on Sean Hannity’s Fox show to denounce Sherrod’s “viciously racist attitude.”

The White House and the USDA didn’t wait for the whole story and a USDA undersecretary called Sherrod, told her to pull over to the side of the road as she was driving, and ordered her send in her resignation on her blackberry. Although the White House says that the firing was all Agriculture’s doing, Sherrod said that the undersecretary made it clear that the White House had called for her resignation and even cited the rumor that she was going to appear on Glenn Beck’s show as a precipitating reason. On the heels of its denunciation of racism in the Tea Party, the NAACP quickly moved to join the administration in criticizing Sherrod.

The White House should have waited and gotten the facts. The NAACP should have waited. Having now had access to the full tape of Sherrod’s speech, most of the press has slammed the Administration’s rush to judgment. The NAACP too says that it was “snookered” by the Breitbart tape and is calling for a review of the facts. The Examiner writer updated his column apologizing to Sherrod and others criticized the White House’s much-too-fast reaction. Conservative pundit Charles Krauthammer called for the White House to apologize to Sherrod. Even Glenn Beck acknowledged that the full tape exonerates Sherrod of racism, although her concern for the common interests of poor black farms and poor white farmers makes her guilty of the class warfare bias he believes infects the “socialist” Obama administration.

The 62-year-old Sherrod had never been some sort of ideologue waiting to be tapped by President Obama for some glitzy White House position. She had spent the bulk of her adult life fighting to get several recalcitrant administrations to live up to the Pigford decision and assist black farmers who had suffered systematic discrimination at the hands of the Department of Agriculture going back decades. Her speech was an awkward way of telling her NAACP audience about the importance of making alliances between the races.  Her intent wasn’t racial, but post-racial.

The White House called the Agriculture Department Tuesday night after more information about Sherrod’s remarks emerged, a White House official told the media. The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the call, said the White House and the department agreed that the case case should be reviewed based on the new evidence.

The White House should acknowledge its error, reject Sherrod’s resignation, and tell Secretary Vilsack to immediately reinstate this admirable woman.

Update, July 21, 12:30 am: The White House and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack apologized profusely and repeatedly on Wednesday to Shirley Sharrod  for the way she had been forced to resign her Agriculture Department job, after a conservative blogger put out a misleading video clip that seemed to show her admitting antipathy toward a white farmer.