“The White House Wants You Out”
Interstate 75 cuts a jagged path down the center of Georgia, a busy highway where caravans of massive trucks haul their loads through the South day and night. I had driven that highway hundreds of times, traveling to Athens, where my office was, or to Atlanta. In my role as Georgia state director of rural development for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), I logged many hours of driving every week.
My practice was to spend Monday through Friday in the field and return to my home in Albany, in the southwest corner of the state, for the weekend. I usually enjoyed the ride, especially in the summer. Even when I was tired, it was my time to be alone with my thoughts, to reflect, to prepare to ease back into family life. I kept the air conditioner humming and the music on low. My phone was hooked up to a hands-free system so I could easily make or receive calls. There was always some emergency or another to address, and I liked to stay available.
But on Monday, July 19, 2010, my quiet journey was interrupted by the dark interior cloud that gripped me as I put my shaking hands to the wheel and headed for home.
Earlier that day I had been over in West Point, a tiny town on the far western edge of the state, on the Chattahoochee River, for a daylong meeting. The mood was very high-spirited among the twelve staff members who greeted me when I arrived early, ahead of the day’s heat. At a time when economic good news was hard to find, the rural struggle was about to be eased substantially with the opening of a Kia plant. The textile mills that had supported this part of Georgia for most of the century had long since been shuttered and moved to Mexico and overseas, and Kia was throwing a lifeline to a dying community. When the company announced it was opening a plant in West Point, it was as miraculous as the resurrection itself. There would be ten thousand jobs from the plant and suppliers, with an estimated ten thousand more from supporting businesses. Our agency had helped the city prepare for the opening, and the city manager was going to take us over there for a tour after lunch as a way of saying thanks. We were feeling quite celebratory that day.
However, just as we were about to leave for the plant, my secretary notified me that Cheryl Cook, my boss in Washington, would be calling me and I should stand by. I told the others to go on without me and sat down to wait for Cheryl.
I had some idea of what she wanted. Behind my cheerful smile, I had been struggling with a growing personal crisis. For the last few days, my BlackBerry had been inundated with angry calls from all over the country. They were very ugly, and I was forced to listen to a steady stream of hate coming through the hands-free system as I drove.
The first sign of trouble had come the previous Thursday while I was sitting in a meeting in Atlanta. It was an e-mail on my BlackBerry that read, “You ought to be ashamed of yourself. Working for the government and refusing to help white farmers, and then bragging about it to the NAACP.”
I was shocked, and I could only guess at what the person—I couldn’t tell if it was a man or a woman—was talking about. A couple weeks earlier, I had given a speech to the Coffee County NAACP, but my message had not been that I wouldn’t help white farmers; it had been the opposite. I had used the story of rescuing the farm of a man named Roger Spooner in 1986 as an example of how we needed to let the wounds of the past heal and reach out and help each other. I immediately texted the e-mailer back, explaining my message, and got the response “It looks like someone misrepresented your words.”
That was for sure! My speech had been about healing and togetherness. I had felt so clear about the necessity of taking off our blinders and letting the light shine in, even when it was hard to face.
* * *
Sixty-three-year-old Roger Spooner was beaten down when he walked into my office at the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund in 1986.
Although the Federation had originally been organized to help black farmers keep their land, we regularly had white farmers approach us for various things. But that was the first time a white farmer had ever come to me for help saving his land. I offered Mr. Spooner a seat. I could see he was trying hard to maintain his pride, and I figured he must have felt uncomfortable to be talking to me about his problems. Relations between blacks and whites were still fragile in 1980s Georgia. There was a common attitude of “We’ll take care of our kind, and you take care of your kind.” Mr. Spooner began by speaking loudly, and at first I thought he was acting superior to me, but I later found out he was hard of hearing and he always talked like that. We stared uneasily at each other across the desk, and then, haltingly, he began to tell me his story. He and his wife, Eloise, had a family farm they were on the brink of losing. I learned that the Spooners were two weeks away from their farm being sold at the courthouse, and someone had suggested they come to see me as a last-ditch effort.
I looked at the worried man sitting across from me, and my heart just opened up wide. I had a revelation. I said, “I can help you.” And I did. It took plenty of maneuvering, but my efforts succeeded, and the Spooners and I ended up being solid friends.
I told that story to the NAACP audience, describing it as an emotional breakthrough for me, because my work had always been with black farmers, but, as I told the audience, “God helped me to see that it’s not just about black people—it’s about poor people. And I’ve come a long way. I knew that I couldn’t live with hate, you know. As my mother has said so many times, ‘If we had tried to live with hate in our hearts, we’d probably be dead now.’”
While I spoke, the room was hushed as the audience listened intently. It was a very powerful moment for many of us who had come through the trials of segregation and chosen not to hate. But obviously someone had decided to twist the message.
Before day’s end, I had several more e-mails, and I forwarded the correspondence to Cheryl. She was a good boss, a no-nonsense veteran of rural development jobs, and I trusted her to be my advocate. I suggested that she get a copy of the tape of my entire speech, in case the department had to respond. I assumed I would get their help on this, but for the next few days the e-mails and voice mails on my BlackBerry continued, becoming increasingly virulent, and nothing was being done.
By then I knew that the instigator was a blogger named Andrew Breitbart, who had published a small selectively edited clip of my speech that Monday morning that made it look as if I was saying the exact opposite of what I said. I was being accused of reverse racism. I could not believe it. That wasn’t me at all! Breitbart had also tweeted, “Will Eric Holder’s DOJ hold accountable fed appointee Shirley Sherrod for admitting practicing racial discrimination?”
I expected the USDA to come to my defense and help set the record straight. But I can honestly say that the matter was not at the front of my mind that day. My plate was very full.
When my staff returned from the Kia plant, I still had not heard from Cheryl. Before they got carried away wondering what was going on, I told everyone to sit down and let me explain it, because I felt they deserved to know. “I gave a speech over in Coffee County, March 27,” I said, “and someone has taken a little snippet from it and put something out there that makes me appear to be a racist. So there’s some stuff going on about that.” They blinked at me, not fully comprehending. “Oh, Shirley,” said one of them sympathetically, “we know that’s not true. How can we help?”
I was touched by their support and said so, just as my BlackBerry beeped with Cheryl’s call. I stepped out of the room to talk to her.
“Hi, Cheryl,” I said calmly, expecting to hear my boss outline the agency’s plan for my defense.
“We’re placing you on administrative leave,” she said without preamble.
“Oh, my goodness.” For a moment I couldn’t catch my breath. It was the last thing I’d expected. I sat down in a chair and tried to steady my voice as I talked again about my message and about what Breitbart had done to the tape and how it wasn’t true that I had been expressing racism. She listened without speaking, and when I was done, she said flatly, “I’m sorry.”
I saw that it was hopeless. “So what do I do?” I asked. It wasn’t an idle question. I was a 24/7 worker. My job was my life, and she knew it. Cheryl flippantly told me, “Go home and have a good rest.”
I felt as if I’d been slapped. Was I that disposable? I pulled myself to my feet and walked slowly back to the room where my staff was waiting. “I’ve been placed on administrative leave,” I told them, watching their faces fall. We were like family in that group, and our bond certainly transcended race. Anyone who saw our interactions would notice that.
“I’d better get on the road,” I said. I had eight hours ahead of me—four hours to Athens to turn in the official car and pick up my personal car and four hours home to Albany. My staff didn’t want to let me go off alone with the crisis percolating, but I said, “I can deal with it. You just continue with your meeting.”
They stood around me as I put on my coat and gathered up my things, and finally one of them asked in a quiet voice if we could pray. That choked me up. I nodded, and we got into a circle, closed our eyes, and prayed to God to be with us, to be with me, in this difficult time. It may surprise some people to hear about a prayer circle in a government office, but in the small rural communities prayer was the constant glue of our lives. No matter how great the trials, prayer always helped.
I hugged each person—I was a big hugger; everybody knew that about me—and set off toward Athens. As I drove, I thought about many things. I reflected on how far I’d come from the days when Georgia roads had been as dangerous as a war zone, and I guess they were a war zone during the civil rights years. I’d learned to drive at a young age, but I’d hardly ever driven alone on the back roads. When things were especially frightening, we’d traveled by caravan, even to church. There had been some safety in numbers.
There was none of that fear now, but as the hate calls continued to register on my BlackBerry, I realized that there were different ways to terrorize someone. Every once in a while, Cheryl would call, and since I was driving a government car that didn’t have a hands-free phone system, I had to talk with my phone in my hand while driving, which I never liked to do. The first call came as I was leaving West Point, the second as I was driving through heavy traffic in Atlanta. In each case, Cheryl’s voice was quite calm, but I could hear her underlying worry. There had to be a big problem for her to call me so many times. I wished she’d leave me alone to concentrate on my driving. I hoped my blood pressure was staying steady.
It had always been my way, when facing difficulty or confusion, to meditate on my blessings, and I distracted myself with that exercise for many miles. I was baffled and a bit demoralized, but I wasn’t really worried. I figured that Cheryl and her people would sort it out. I was already planning what I’d say, how I’d be gracious and use it as a teachable moment. Lord, the teachable moments kept coming—though I didn’t particularly like that expression. That was all right. I’d find a way to make it work for the good.
It was late afternoon, and I was about thirty miles from Athens, when Cheryl called a third time. This time she was extremely agitated. “Where are you? Where are you?” she shouted.
“About twenty miles out of Athens,” I said.
“The White House wants you to pull over to the side of the road and submit your resignation on your BlackBerry,” she said.
“Pull over? Here?” The road was busy, and the shoulder was narrow.
“Yes!” she practically shouted at me.
That’s when I started getting angry. “Cheryl, I just cannot believe the administration will not support me on this. You know me, you’ve known me before now, and I said that was not my message. This is wrong, and you know it!” She didn’t have a response. We hung up, but she called back a few minutes later.
“The White House wants you to pull over,” she repeated.
“What happened?” I felt I deserved to know.
At least she was honest with me.
She said, “Well, when Glenn Beck said you would be the topic for his show tonight, that did it.”
This was about what Glenn Beck might say? I couldn’t believe it. I kept talking to Cheryl, trying to remind her who I was and what I stood for. I was doing everything I could to avoid pulling over—first because there wasn’t much room on the side of the road and I was worried about safety, but also because I couldn’t fathom what the emergency could be that would make this risky maneuver necessary. I was already on administrative leave. Couldn’t we discuss it when I got to the office or home? Apparently not. Cheryl was unrelenting, and at last I agreed.
“Okay, Cheryl,” I said with a sigh. “I’m going to stop my car and send it in. But I want you to know you have not heard the last from me.”
I pulled to the side of the road and turned off my engine. With the cars and trucks whizzing by on my left, I closed my eyes and gathered my thoughts. What should I write? What could I write on the tiny screen of my BlackBerry that would stand for all the years I had worked in the field?
Finally I typed, “I feel so disappointed that the Secretary and the President let a misrepresentation of my words on the part of the Tea Party be the reason to ask me to resign. Please look at the tape and see that I use the story from 1986 to show people that the issue is not about race but about those who have versus those who do not. I submit my resignation but in doing so want to put the administration on notice that I will get the whole story out.” It seemed feeble and inadequate, but there it was. I bowed my head and pressed “Send.” It was 6:55 PM.
Before I started up the car, I called my husband and told him what had happened.
“Charles, I’ve been fired. I’m on the side of the road outside Athens.”
“Okay.” His soft, molasses-sweet voice was immediately calming, but I still had trouble keeping my emotions together. I felt overwhelmed with the enormity of what had happened to me. “What will my babies say?” I moaned. “How can I explain to my children that I got fired by the first black president?” My head throbbed with shame.
He chuckled. “The kids will be fine,” he assured me, amused that I would panic over the reactions of our adult children—who were not really babies but extremely intelligent and capable people—and our grandchildren, for whom this skirmish would hardly register. “Right now, you just concentrate on driving. Put it out of your mind, and keep your eyes on the road. Call me when you turn onto Route 300.”
I put the car into drive and edged back onto the road. I stopped in Athens, parked the company vehicle, and picked up my personal car. Then I drove to my secretary’s house and gave her my BlackBerry, my office keys, and my ID. I resisted her invitation to stay and have tea or coffee. I wanted to keep moving.
Just as the sun was setting, I headed south. As I drove, I started getting calls from my friends who were watching stories about me on Fox News. The word was out that the NAACP had issued a statement condemning me. My friends were begging me to stop and go to a hotel. They didn’t want me driving alone. “No,” I told them again and again, “I just want to get home.”
It was nearly midnight by the time I turned onto Highway 300, the narrow road that would take me to Albany. It was dark, and the black night strained my sixty-two-year-old eyes. I peered through the pinpoints of my headlights onto the highway surface, where the deer liked to leap across without warning and the heavy summer branches fell forward at the narrow places. I had to stay alert, clear-eyed, and safe, and that’s why I didn’t even once consider crying during the long journey home.