Saturday, July 24, 2010

The Persistence of Charles and Shirley Sherrod

Charles and Shirley Sherrod are heroes of the nonviolent, democratic movement from below. They have dedicated their lives to fighting for the most oppressed – those who were lynched and forced into the worst jobs, the deepest poverty, and even today twice as frequent death in childbirth, service on the front lines in Iraq or Afghanistan or time in prison for the same crime. Reactionaries seek to prove that whites suffer from a racism like that of blacks; when whites have been lynched by black police chiefs and put down by law – when hell freezes over – perhaps there will be a parallel…It is true, however, that anti-racist whites like my friend Andy Goodman have also been murdered by these same white racists – racism toward blacks hurts most whites as well.

Shirley Sherrod rightly came to see the attacks of the elite on poor white farmers as part of the same tapestry of oppression as the fiercer attacks on poor blacks. Racism, as she discovered against an initial expectation and underlined in her speech to the NAACP, is a form of divide and rule. Joan Walsh’s excellent column below rightly celebrates her as well as the role of Charles Sherrod in fighting for continuing multiracial unity in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee when Stokely Carmichael was leading it in the direction of black power and expelling whites.

I know of Charles Sherrod primarily from showing “Eyes on the Prize” in nonviolence classes for several years (h/t Judy Richardson and Vincent Harding). I know him as a feisty, handsome, civil rights organizer on the ground in Albany, Georgia, with a powerful turn of sometimes biblical phrase. Albany was an enormous center of black resistance to segregation and the "mother lode," as Bernice Johnson Reagon (the lead singer of Sweet Honey and the Rock") put it, of black song, spirituality, and power. It was a place where Martin Luther King was invited to speak. As Sherrod says, 2000 people would come out. But then King would fly away. And it would be even harder than before to get people to come to the regular events and campaigns. This point is also illustrated later in the series, when King was on a march to Jackson, taking over from James Meredith who had been shot by a racist. Unlike SCLC (the Southern Christian Leadership Conference), Stokely and SNCC rightly went to canvass and register voters. The impulse to get people to vote and break the hold of segregation, especially by canvassing of ordinary people, seems to have come primarily from SNCC (the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party which found the great leader Fannie Lou Hamer and whose protest changed the Democratic Party forever from that of the racists), and not from SCLC. One of the virtues of these films is that rightly celebrating and in awe of King’s greatness, they nonetheless show some of his weaknesses and struggles as an organizer and trace complex relationships and possibilities within the movement.

King was arrested in Albany along with Sherrod and many others. Sherrod reports a clever and brutal remark to him of Sheriff Laurie Pritchett who is also interviewed. “It’s mind over matter,” says Pritchett: “I don’t mind and you don’t matter.” Pritchett read some of King’s writings and some Gandhi. He realized that the non-violent movement intended to fill the jails and overwhelm the capacity of the segregationists to maintain their genocidal rule. So he called all the police departments in a 50-mile radius and got them to take prisoners. He went to a picket line, allowed two picketers to go on, and told the rest to leave. When they didn't, he arrested them. Pritchett told the racists: we have to get King out of jail and “I believe he’ll leave”. Some of them – he didn’t know who – raised the money and got King out. King did leave, very demoralized.

When King went to Birmingham, he had learned to have a much more focused campaign. But Bull Connor, the sheriff and mayoral candidate, initially tried some of Pritchett’s tactics. King had learned more. In addition, Connor, the most racist candidate for mayor lost and then illegally tried to take over (two city governments met for three months; it is interesting that the federal govenment chose not to intervene on the side of the legally elected government, though it was vitally involved in "counselling" the civil rights movement to "wait," "wait"). He was unable to deal with mass disobedience by high school students. He got out the police dogs and the fire hoses and the most famous pictures internationally of the civil rights movement came from his brutality – he has a standing in infamy with George Wallace and Orville Faubus.

Pritchett was a smart practitioner of counterinsurgency, or counter-decency against civil disobedience and in favor of the segregated and genocidal South (I am using the term genocide in the sense of the 1948 UN Convention against Genocide – the deliberate destruction of a people “in whole or in part”). Today in Afghanistan and Iraq, smart young neo- and neo-neo-cons (the Democratic variety of foreign policy "expert") are trying to put together COIN – a clever counter-insurgency on behalf of a murderous and corrupt occupying army and more or less puppet govenment. This was General Stan McChystal’s task. It is now David Petraeus’s. The occupations have gone on too long (the sands are running in the hour glass even as I write). America is in an economic depression (close to 16% real unemployment), and likely things will get a lot worse with the abrupt cutback of serious Keynsian programs. They have almost no time, and Petraeus seeks a long time to fail. If one wants to understand how well they are doing, McChrystal sensibly tried to get soldiers not to fire on civilians and not to call in air power and missiles. Wars that don’t kill civilians, however, don’t exist. They still killed a lot of civilians, and he was met with resistance from soldiers, some of whom complained that their lives were endangered (in his fine article here, Michael Hastings, the Rolling Stone reporter, too easily accepted this complaint). No wonder McChrystal and his staff were freaking out. One would need to end the occupation to end this paradox.

The US armies in Iraq and Afghanistan are invaders. They don’t speak the languages. They are not the home team. Against Bush-Cheney aggression and the mainsream media, let us remember the American Revolution and that the era of colonialism is over. In Iraq, the shia (the majority) are waiting for US withdrawal. Obama still plans to keep 100,000 troops there (half army, half contractor), and so, influence what happens next. But once the fighting stops, it will be difficult for the US to plunge American soldiers – mostly rounded up among the black and rural white poor – to engage again. In Afghanistan, defeat looks even more likely (the US or Karzai may make a deal with the Taliban and yet produce a renewed civil war with the ethnically different Northern war lords on whom Bush first relied). The idea of COIN, of counterinsurgency to save segregationist or colonial or American aggressor rule over fiercely oppressed local populations is modeled by the film Avatar, and is a fool’s errand.

Pritchett was no fool. But while he outflanked King in Albany, Georgia for a time, King learned, and the movement in Albany, too, went on. There is a beautiful moment when King has left and Charles Sherrod powerfully summons to a small audience of Albany blacks the image that the race is not to the swift but to him (and her) who persist. Charles and Shirley Sherrod have persisted.

For related posts, see here, here, here, here and here.

THURSDAY, JUL 22, 2010 21:01 ET

The civil rights heroism of Charles Sherrod
Andrew Breitbart sure picked the wrong people to symbolize black "racism." Taylor Branch and Clay Carson weigh in


People who care about civil rights and racial reconciliation may eventually thank Andrew Breitbart for bringing Shirley Sherrod the global attention she deserves. Really. Her message of racial healing, her insight that the forces of wealth and injustice have always pit "the haves and the have-nots" against each other, whatever their race, is exactly what's missing in today's Beltway debates about race. What's even more amazing, but almost completely unexplored in this controversy, is the historic civil rights leadership role of her husband, Charles Sherrod, an early leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, who served on the front lines of the nonviolent civil rights movement in the early 1960s.

Despite Breitbart's attempt to cast Shirley Sherrod as The, um, Man ("The Woman" doesn't have the same ring), out to keep oppressed white folk down, under our first black racist president, she turned out to be the opposite, an advocate of justice for everybody. Given that history, it's fascinating to learn more about her husband, an early SNCC leader known for being willing to work with white volunteers even after tension developed over the role of whites in the organization. Charles Sherrod is important for much more than the fairness with which he treated whites, but given Breitbart's attempt to make his wife the poster woman for black "racism," that footnote to his leadership history is particularly noteworthy. If there's anyone more clueless about our civil rights history than Breitbart, as well as more abusive to it, I'm challenged to think of who it might be. He tests my commitment to nonviolent social change, but I'll share the work of Charles Sherrod to remember my values.

Sherrod was SNCC's first field secretary, and he co-founded the Albany movement after a student sit-in at the local bus station (to test a recently enacted desegregation law) led to a years-long campaign that ultimately involved Martin Luther King Jr. and the intervention of President John F. Kennedy. He traveled to the historic (and almost all-white) 1964 Democratic National Convention, when the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party fought for more black representation. He was jailed several times and stayed with SNCC until 1966, when Stokely Carmichael became chair and whites were expelled, but he'd already become more focused on his work in southwest Georgia than SNCC politics. Sherrod got his doctor of divinity degree from New York's Union Theological Seminary, then returned to Albany to found the Southwest Georgia Independent Voters Project, then the agricultural cooperative New Communities Inc. He served 14 years on the Albany City Council, and he still lives there, known to civil rights movement veterans but obscure to the wider world, until his wife was attacked by the ignorant bullies of the right.

"We tend to think of civil rights workers as people who, it was an episode in their life before they went on and did something else," says Clayborne Carson, SNCC historian and director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford. "But Sherrod is an exemplar of those people who didn't leave the movement. They stayed, and they're still fighting, to this day." (I tried to reach Sherrod for this story, but not surprisingly, the voice-mail boxes I got to were full.)

I'm a little embarrassed I didn't immediately recognize Sherrod's name, because he's an important figure in one of my favorite books, "Parting the Waters," the first volume in Taylor Branch's majestic trilogy, "America in the King Years." Of course, I read it when it came out, about 21 years ago, and Sherrod is only mentioned twice in the final volume, "At Canaan's Edge," which I finished around the time of the Obama election. I lent out my copy of "Parting the Waters" and never got it back (if you have it, return it!), so I tracked down Taylor Branch himself, and rather unbelievably, he reached over to a bookshelf and read the most important sections about Sherrod, over the phone.

But first, I asked Branch to tell me why Sherrod was such an important figure in the early days of the modern civil rights movement.

"Well, you know, he's still alive," Branch noted, since I seemed to be speaking in the past tense. (I knew he was still living, because Jonathan Capehart wrote about meeting him Thursday morning, accompanying his wife to MSNBC, and then driving to an interview at CNN. But neither show interviewed Charles Sherrod; no one seems to have realized his history.) Branch and Sherrod saw each other back in April, at SNCC's 50th anniversary celebration.

"He's an amazingly humble, persistent, thoughtful, stubborn and brave individual," Branch said. "You know, I mention [Mississippi SNCC leader] Bob Moses about 100 times in the book, and I consider him a truly historical figure. But Sherrod is up there, he's mentioned about 20 times." Carson likewise compared Sherrod to Moses. "He's as central to the struggle for voting rights as Moses was; the difference is, the movement turning point wasn't southwest Georgia, it was Mississippi. History is strange that way."

I asked Branch what he remembered best about Sherrod. He chuckled and read me a passage from the book about the jailing of hundreds of Freedom Riders in Mississippi in 1961, and a meeting that Sherrod, SNCC leader Diane Nash, and others had with Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, to ask for his help. The two young activists were unaware that Kennedy had already cut a deal with Mississippi Gov. Ross Barnett : If cops didn't beat up the protesters, the U.S. government would stay out of the way as they arrested them. As many as 600 Freedom Riders, most of them kids, were locked up in Parchman Penitentiary, Branch recalled, when Nash and Sherrod met with Kennedy and his assistant Burke Marshall.

Kennedy took the administration's line at the time: Why didn't the protesters drop their pesky Freedom Rides and get involved in voter registration — a constructive way to advance civil rights but also, of course, to register more Democrats. Sherrod exploded at Kennedy: "You are a public official, sir! It is not your job, before God or under the law, to tell us how to honor our constitutional rights. It's your job to protect us when we do." Branch laughed: "He does have a fiery side, but he was also, deeply, genuinely religious."

I was trying to find a neat morality tale match up between Shirley Sherrod's ultimate kindness to the white farmers she first resisted helping, and Charles Sherrod's role working with white volunteers in SNCC. Both Branch and Carson warned me about overstating that dimension of his story. "Sherrod would work with anybody," Branch said. "It's not right to say he went out of his way to work with white volunteers — but when they showed up in Atlanta, and people phoned around to find some place they could work, he'd take them." Reservations about working with whites weren't only about "black power," Branch noted. "They were a lot harder to supervise, and they stood out and could draw danger to themselves and other people." By the time of the big SNCC explosion that led to Carmichael's leadership and the expulsion of whites, "Sherrod was pretty far away from the ideological side. He's five years in Albany and caught up there," Branch says.

Still, it's worth noting that in one of the sadder internal battles of the civil rights movement, Sherrod was on the right side, standing up to heat for his use of white students in the Albany movement as early as 1964, according to Branch's "Pillar of Fire." The Sherrods are two for two: Given the chance to choose retaliation against whites and a kind of black separatism (which might even be understandable given the white racism they both endured growing up in the Jim Crow South), both chose to side with decency to white people.

Taylor Branch hopes the ugly treatment of Shirley Sherrod has the unintended positive consequence of "adding some context about a truly remarkable couple." Branch was sequestered in a Philadelphia library, researching his next book, and emerged to see headlines about some squabble over a USDA official. He read the story: "I said, 'Oh my God, it's Shirley Sherrod?' She is such a gem, and he is such a gem. We should really be listening to what she has to say."

Clay Carson agrees, but he couldn't resist voicing disappointment in President Obama for the administration's rapid dismissal of Shirley Sherrod before all the facts were in. "This is a symbol of something much larger: On civil liberties issues, he's just lost it. Nobody should ever be dismissed from a position for something they're saying on Fox. As a matter of principle, you don't fire someone without some kind of internal due process and investigation. But this is an administration that can order the assassination of an American citizen. It's disappointing, to say the least."
If I get a chance to talk to Charles Sherrod, I'll let him tell you what he thinks, in his own words, here.

Joan Walsh is Salon's editor in chief.

Thrown to the Wolves

Published: July 23, 2010

The Shirley Sherrod story tells us so much about ourselves, and none of it is pretty. The most obvious and shameful fact is that the Obama administration, which runs from race issues the way thoroughbreds bolt from the starting gate, did not offer this woman anything resembling fair or respectful treatment before firing and publicly humiliating her.

Moving with the swiftness of fanatics on a hanging jury, big shots in the administration and Bill O’Reilly of Fox News came to exactly the same conclusion: Shirley Sherrod had to go — immediately! No time for facts. No time for justice.

What we have here is power run amok. Ms. Sherrod was not even called into an office to be fired face to face. She got the shocking news in her car. “They called me twice,” she told The Associated Press. “The last time, they asked me to pull over to the side of the road and submit my resignation on my BlackBerry, and that’s what I did.”

This woman was thrown to the wolves without even the courtesy of a conversation. Her side of the story? The truth? The administration wasn’t interested.

And the blame for that falls squarely on the people at the very top in the White House. Why didn’t President Obama or Vice President Joe Biden or Rahm (call me Rahmbo) Emanuel, or somebody somewhere in the upper echelon say, “Hey, what the heck are you doing? You can’t fire a person without hearing her side of the story. This is not the Kremlin. Are you nuts?”

And then, of course, there’s the media, and not just the wing nuts at Fox and the crazies in the right-wing blogosphere. A large segment of the mainstream crowd stampeded to condemn this woman solely on the basis of a grainy video clip, just two-and-a-half minutes long, that was trumpeted by a source whose track record should have set alarm bells ringing in the head of any responsible journalist.

This sorry episode shows the extent to which we’ve lost sight of the most basic elements of fair play, responsible reporting and common decency in this society. And we’ve turned the race issue entirely on its head. While racial discrimination is overwhelmingly directed against black people in the U.S., much of the nation and the media are poised to go berserk over the most specious allegations of racism against whites. Even the N.A.A.C.P. rushed to condemn Ms. Sherrod, calling her actions “shameful,” without bothering to seek out the facts — which, incredibly, had unfolded at an N.A.A.C.P. event!

Later, after officials at the organization had found and released a tape of Ms. Sherrod’s entire 45-minute speech, the group’s president, Ben Jealous, apologized and said the N.A.A.C.P. had been “snookered.”

Black people are in a terrible condition right now — economically, socially, educationally and otherwise — and there is no effective champion fighting for their interests. Mr. Jealous and the new edition of the N.A.A.C.P. have shown in this episode that they are not ready for prime time, and President Obama seems reluctant to even utter the word black. Or poor, for that matter.
We hear so much about the middle class, and it’s true that the middle class has suffered in this terrible recession. There’s a middle-class task force in the White House led by the vice president. But the people suffering most in this long economic tailspin are the poor and the black, and you don’t hear much about that.

Which brings us to the most important part of the Shirley Sherrod story. The point that Ms. Sherrod was making as she talked in her speech about the white farmer who had come to her for help was that we are all being sold a tragic bill of goods by the powerful forces that insist on pitting blacks, whites and other ethnic groups against one another.
Ms. Sherrod came to the realization, as she witnessed the plight of poverty-stricken white farmers in the South more than two decades ago, that the essential issue in this country “is really about those who have versus those who don’t.”

She explained how the wealthier classes have benefited from whites and blacks constantly being at each other’s throats, and how rampant racism has insidiously kept so many struggling whites from recognizing those many things they and their families have in common with economically struggling blacks, Hispanics and so on.

“It’s sad that we don’t have a roomful of whites and blacks here tonight,” she said, “because we have to overcome the divisions that we have.”

There is no way we’ll overcome those divisions if people who should know better keep bowing before and kowtowing to the toxic agenda of those on the right whose overriding goal is to foment hostility and hate.


Amentahru said...

thanks for posting this Alan. I hadn't made the connection and the NPR story that I listened to vindicating Shirley didn't do it for me either.

Nick said...

Alan, thanks so much for this post, including the Slate article. What an important historical couple, and a travesty that the Obama and NAACP literati did not recognize Mrs. Sherrod immediately.

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