Lost in the chatter about the firing of Shirley Sherrod and subsequent USDA apology is the unquestionable fact that she had devoted her entire life to economic justice.
In my view, she is a moral giant compared to shameful media celebrities, like Sean Hannity or Bill O’Reilly, that wrongly accused her of racism.
I met Shirley Sherrod in 1982, when I was 22 years old.
I was traveling in the South with Chuck Matthei, my colleague at the Institute for Community Economics. Our organization was a national technical assistance provider to community land trusts for affordable housing, agriculture and land control.
It was hot-as-blazes when we pulled up to a small home and office on a rural byway outside Albany, Georgia. Chuck knew the Sherrods from civil rights organizing days in the 1960s and 1970s and was trying to prepare his young colleague to meet people he considered as “movement elders.” (Shirley was a movement elder even then!).
“Reverend and Mrs. Sherrod were leaders in the “Albany movement,” Chuck explained to me. “Shirley had been active in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and had worked with Rev. King on desegregation struggles in the deep South.”
“The Sherrods,” Chuck explained with obvious respect, “had devoted their lives not just to civil rights protections –but also to reversing several
generations of black land loss in the rural south. They were interested in nonviolent action for civil rights, but were also greatly influenced by Gandhi’s ideas of nonviolent economics and village economics.”
The Sherrods were co-founders, in 1965, of a bold initiative called New Communities, Inc. With help from Bob Swann and the Institute for Community Economics, they had acquired almost 6,000 acres of land to develop a land trust for housing and small farmers.
The Sherrods greeted us at their door and graciously welcomed us to their kitchen table, serving us cold lemonade. We talked about the history and fate of New Communities. Later, we walked sections of the land and visited some of the farm projects.
The vision for New Communities was that the organization would retain ownership of the land –but lease the land for homes, farms and business. With the larger structure of support and financing, individual black families and farmers would be less vulnerable to losing their land.
Part of their inspiration was the Jewish National Fund. The founders of New Communities had traveled to Israel to explore models of land tenure, like the kibbutzim, that held land in common for community advancement and development.
The Sherrods were gracious, but distraught. The New Communities vision, by 1982, was on the ropes. The hopes of raising large grants and resources for community development had been dashed. Ronald Reagan was president and his U.S.D.A was refusing to provide needed financing for farmers and support for irrigation projects at New Communities.
A large national insurance company held the remaining New Communities mortgage and was threatening to foreclose. We strategized about ways to hold on to land by the agonizing process of selling off sections.
Over the following years, I talked to Shirley and Charles on the phone in our unsuccessful efforts to prevent the loss of New Communities. It was heart-wrenching to hear the stress in their voices and I remember wishing we could do more. Shirley went on to work with the Federation of Southern Cooperatives to provide technical assistance to farmers.
In 2009, a lawsuit fully vindicated the Sherrods. The court decision acknowledged racial discrimination on the part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the years 1981 to 1985. New Communities was awarded $13 million for loss of land and income. The Sherrods were each awarded funds for their personal pain and suffering, anguish that I personally witnessed.
The community land trust movement continues. The National Community Land Trust network provides support for existing and emerging community land trusts. At the last network convention, Shirley Sherrod was inspiring the keynote speaker.
In my mind, Shirley Sherrod is someone to lift up and celebrate. I hope that the recent attention drawn to her will lead to a fuller telling of her contribution to economic justice.