As we all know by now, he erroneously fired black USDA employee Shirley Sherrod based on a videotape of a speech she gave that was doctored by a right-wing blogger, and which then hit the web and Fox News. Apologizing to Sherrod and offering her job back, Vilsack said, “’This is a good woman; she’s been put through hell. I could have done and should have done a better job.’”
There may be no way to truly make amends to Shirley Sherrod, whose life’s work was trying to rectify discrimination (not to mention that of her husband, renowned civil rights leader Charles Sherrod.) But I suspect she would want this terrible mess to be used as an opportunity to remind the American public of the larger story of USDA discrimination, which we covered several months ago here at ThePopTort. It’s worth reviewing again.
During the early 1980s, several African-American farmers began a movement to try to force the USDA to stop discriminating against black farmers over “price support loans, disaster payments, operating loans and farm ownership loans.”
Nothing happened. Then, in 1997, Timothy Pigford, a North Carolina black farmer, filed a lawsuit against the USDA.…
In 1999, Pigford and about 2,000 other farmers in the class action settled for $50,000 apiece to avoid prolonged litigation. Thousands of other black farmers were unaware of the Pigford vs. Glickman class-action lawsuit and missed the deadline for filing. The USDA disqualified thousands of others. [John Wesley Boyd Jr.] led an effort, known as the Black Farmers Late Claim Bill, to ensure that some 80,000 black farmers would receive compensation.
Indeed, in May, the White House set aside $1.15 billion to help settle claims in conjunction with the Pigford lawsuit.
Sherrod and her family were themselves part of this lawsuit “because of the land trust they started in the 1960s along with several other black families.” Apparently, “complaints of discrimination began piling up after the Reagan administration shut down the department's civil rights division in 1983, and the lawsuit covered the years between 1983 and 1997.”
The Sherrods’ land trust -- New Communities – “was awarded $13 million, mostly for loss of land and loss of income and including $300,000 for the Sherrods, according to the Rural Development Leadership Network.”
Said Vilsack, “’We have been working hard through the past 18 months to reverse the checkered civil rights history at the department and take the issue of fairness and equality very seriously.’”
Let’s hope the full story doesn’t get lost in the media chaos surrounding this teachable incident. Moving forward.