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Saturday, May 15, 2021

The whole truth about Shirley Sherrod’s ‘sermon’

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The last time there was this much hot political commentary by people who hadn’t actually seen the source material was probably the week that most of us first heard of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

That talk-storm had a lot in common with the media and political pratfall over Shirley Sherrod, the suddenly former mid-level Georgia USDA bureaucrat. In both cases, from out of nowhere, a heavily edited video crops up of oratory given long before. Judgment is rendered, conclusions are leapt to. And then, people started to actually search out the texts to see what was missing from the soundbites.

It turned out in Wright’s case that some of those early judgments were probably wrong. And that there was other material worth challenging that didn’t make it into the early news clips.

Some of this is also true about Sherrod. And while everybody knew that Wright’s material was lifted from his sermons, it’s only clear after reading and listening to Sherrod’s entire speech that it, too, was a sermon.

If you’re new to the story, you can find the long string of Politics Daily coverage of the unspooling of the Sherrod, distributed via an Internet post by Andrew Breitbart. Here and elsewhere, I’ve seen lots of chatter about the hot parts of her speech, but not so much about the whole thing. So I’ll offer a tour here. And don’t worry: I’ll be pointing out the one passage that can fairly be challenged as possible race-baiting.

(Just as I suggest you read and listen to Sherrod’s entire speech, I suggest you take a minute to read Breitbart’s entire first post. It’s clear that, despite a one-phrase sop deep in the copy to her “basic humanity,” he created a context for Sherrod’s speech that was 180 degrees away from the original meaning and that he mischaracterizes the response of her audience. He deserves whatever condemnation comes his way, though there’s plenty of blame to be spread.)

So why do I call the Sherrod speech a sermon? Its cadences, themes and structure – not to mention the crowd reaction – would be familiar to anybody who has spent much time in many African-American churches. She begins with a personal testimony – an example of wrongdoing followed by an epiphany leading to redemption. Toss in an “altar call” for listeners to follow her example. And God is central to the message.

She starts with that personal testimony. As we’ve learned over the past week, Sherrod was a lot more than a rural federal employee. She is, as one commentator put it, civil rights royalty. Daughter of a martyr, wife of an activist, she has her own record of service. The top of the speech sketches out some of that history.

She tells of the casual brutality of the racism she experienced as a child. About her own powerful desire to get out of Georgia and escape the oppression. And about the murder of her own father and a surprising way that event changed her life:

“But I couldn’t just let his death go without doing something in answer to what happened. I made the commitment on the night of my father’s death, at the age of 17, that I would not leave the South, that I would stay in the South and devote my life to working for change. And I’ve been true to that commitment all of these 45 years.”

And here’s where God steps into the narrative, as Sherrod introduces the story that turned into a controversy:

“I prayed about it that night and as our house filled with people I was back in one of the bedrooms praying and asking God to show me what I could do. I didn’t have – the path wasn’t laid out that night. I just made the decision that I would stay and work. And – and over the years things just happened.

“And young people: I want you to know that when you’re true to what God wants you to do the path opens up – and things just come to you. God is good – I can tell you that.

“When I made that commitment, I was making that commitment to Black people – and to Black people only. But, you know, God will show you things and he’ll put things in your path so that – that you realize that the struggle is really about poor people, you know.”

Sherrod also describes an event that will surely make it into the Lifetime or Hallmark movie about her life: How her mother, now a widow, faces down an honest-to-God burning cross on her lawn. Goes out with a gun while other members of her community arrive to surround the bigots. But eventually allow them to leave in peace.

What follows is her familiar story about wanting to do the minimum for a white farmer about to lose his family farm, only to be brought around by the realization that unfairness against poor people is an injustice that transcends race:

“Well, working with him made me see that it’s really about those who have versus those who don’t, you know. And they could be Black, and they could be white; they could be Hispanic. And it made me realize then that I needed to work to help poor people – those who don’t have access the way others have.”

At many points of the speech, you can hear people in the audience saying “Amen,” and “That’s right” and even clapping. Breitbart may never have witnessed this kind of interaction, but it’s not the same as standard applause. A Black preacher will spin out a story about some sin that hits the heart of his audience and they’d nod and call out. Not because they approve of the sin, but because they get the message. And because maybe they’ve fallen in the same place and appreciate his warning.

Next, Sherrod launches into an explanation of racism in America that might have some historians scratching their heads. She starts with 17th-century indentured servitude, where people of all races were stuck for seven years of work until they gained their freedom, and nobody, she says, worried about skin color.

But those in power worried that poor whites and poor Blacks would start to cooperate, she says. And thereby created permanent Black slavery to keep those poor Blacks and whites divided, which led to the legacy of racism.

“So that’s when they made Black people servants for life. That’s when they put laws in place forbidding them to marry each other. That’s when they created the racism that we know of today. They did it to keep us divided. And they – it started working so well, they said, ‘Gosh, looks like we’ve come up on something here that can last generations.’ And here we are over 400 years later, and it’s still working.”

And now we come to the one part of the text where her critics might fairly call her out for playing a race card. Here’s the full quote:

“You know, I haven’t seen such a mean-spirited people as I’ve seen lately over this issue of health care. Some of the racism we thought was buried. Didn’t it surface? Now, we endured eight years of the Bushes and we didn’t do the stuff these Republicans are doing because you have a Black president.”

And yup, the crowd applauds at that one.

On the one hand, what she says is patently unfair. Not all Republicans who opposed the health care reform or who oppose Obama do it on racial grounds.

However: Had she said “some Republicans,” the point would be unarguable. Racist attacks on Obama and on the health care bill were trivially easy to find. Some of ‘em from avowed Republicans.

And now we go into what I’d call her “Bill Cosby” section. In recent years, Cosby has called out African Americans, telling them to stop complaining about racism and start setting and meeting their own high standards. Sherrod spends the second half of her speech on this theme.

Kids have it easy these days, she says:

“And young folks, you know when I was growing up, you had to get home from school and go to the fields. But y’all don’t have to do that no more. You should be excelling, you know.”

She goes on in the same vein: “Blacks should be careful with their money and their credit, should work hard to keep their farms, should take advantage of several government programs that few Blacks even apply for and should work to help each other.

“It looks like the more – the better we do, the more free we are, the more divided we become, you know. It looks like we don’t care about each other any more. You know, that’s why kids can just, you know – y’all know what happened in the day. He did something wrong, everybody in the community got you, you know. Well that doesn’t happen anymore. And we have to get back to that.”

Which to an outsider, sounds weirdly like nostalgia for the days of segregation. That’s a tension I’ve found in many Blacks old enough to have bridged those years: A sharp awareness of progress away from lynchings and Jim Crow, along with a regret for some of the good that was lost when a community that had been forced to unify was suddenly free to scatter. You’ll find similar sentiments among some American Jews.

Sherrod ends with this:

“I won’t keep goingtonight, but let me say there is a saying: ‘Life is a grindstone, but . . . whether it grinds us down or polishes us up depends on us,’ you know.”

A more prescient ending to a speech may never have been delivered. I suspect she’s feeling a little closer to the grindstone today than she did when she said those words last March.

So what do we learn when we study the whole speech? It’s about a rejection of racism. And a call for community and cross-racial cooperation. And a demand that Blacks in rural Georgia work harder to get their act together and make something of themselves.

Would anybody who didn’t sit through it ever have heard about it had Breitbart not distributed the dishonestly edited excerpts? Not likely.

There’s another saying: “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” So the next time you see or hear a quote by someone you disagree with that paints them in the worst possible light, do the body politic a favor and don’t simply accept it before you can check its accuracy. And don’t forward it.

And for sure, Breitbart et al., don’t publish it.

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