Seeing the South With Shirley Sherrod

The Hour

By Leonard Fein

Published July 28, 2010, issue of August 06, 2010.
  • Print
  • Share Share

It would be an absurd overstatement to say that we were friends, but it is true that some 20 years ago, along with Irv Cramer, then the executive director of Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger, I spent the better part of a week traveling through Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi, a trip organized for us by Shirley and Charles Sherrod. Ms. Sherrod was, at the time, director of the Georgia State Office of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund, a job she held for 24 years until, just a year ago, she was named U.S. Department of Agriculture rural development Georgia state director.

Charles Sherrod, her husband, a founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and a hero of the early stirring of the civil rights movement, in Albany, Ga., was her partner in the founding of New Communities, an effort (modeled in part on the Israeli kibbutzim they visited in 1968) intended to generate cooperative farms, principally for black farmers.

Shirley Sherrod is, of course, the suddenly famous woman who was summarily fired from her government position, much to what very quickly turned out to be the appropriate embarrassment of the government, the news media and even some of the Fox News opinionators. The snippet of her 40-minute March talk that was originally distributed was swiftly shown to be a misleading fraud, suggesting a view Sherrod had actually and explicitly disowned. But by the time the fraud was revealed, the bus of false witness had already left the station. Instead, Sherrod herself was disowned by the Department of Agriculture and the NAACP. And there was evening and there was morning and there was evening and there was redemption, the fraud revealed in all its inciting tawdriness, then the transformation of an alleged racist into a martyr and then into something of a heroine.

What were Cramer and I doing on her turf? We came to learn something about the condition of black farmers, a dwindling category long the victims of racism — racism not only as a cultural phenomenon but also, sadly, as government policy. In 1988, Mazon had granted the Federation of Southern Cooperatives $20,000, a huge sum from what was then still a fledgling organization. (Mazon was founded in 1985. Disclosure: I was its founder and remain a member of its board.) We wanted to see for ourselves, up close, how the federation worked, and to what effect.

We came, we saw, we learned, and we were very deeply moved. Days and nights of listening to the farmers’ stories, their stories of what they’d experienced — bankruptcies, foreclosures, the studied indifference to their needs on the part of the relevant government agencies — and their stories of a longed-for tomorrow, when they would truck their produce to poor neighborhoods in big cities and establish there farmers’ markets. We were received with the eager hospitality that so often characterizes poor people, marked by a level of personal dignity we’d not anticipated.

Based on our trip and backed by the enthusiastic endorsements of local and national experts, Mazon granted the federation a total of $123,000 more between 1990 and 2003 — and then, in the aftermath of Katrina, an additional $45,000. No one can say how many family farms Mazon helped save or how much hope it helped sustain, nor even how much dislocation and distress it helped relieve.

As far as we could tell, the farmers who had stayed on as the nature of farming changed so dramatically over the course of the 20th century were not at all the losers, those who hadn’t had the energy or the smarts to move north; these were people with honest dirt on their hands, people who knew and worked and loved the land, farmers not by inertia but by choice. And, for generations, farmers betrayed, separate and decisively unequal; farmers who had never sat with respectful representatives of a Jewish organization eager to offer assistance in their daily struggle.

The storied black-Jewish alliance that had meant so much in the early 1960s had by then withered quite substantially. In 1966, SNCC chose “Black Power” as its path and expelled its white members. (Whereupon Charles Sherrod quit the organization, in 1967 earned a doctor of divinity degree from Union Theological Seminary in New York City, then returned to Albany, where, in 1976, he was elected to the Albany City Council, serving until 1990.) I permit myself to hope that Shirley and Charles remember our time together as warmly as do Irv Cramer and I. If our country is to have the kind of conversation about race it so clearly must have, such memories are a powerful resource.

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • Mazel tov to Idina Menzel on making Variety "Power of Women" cover!
  • "How much should I expect him and/or ask him to participate? Is it enough to have one parent reciting the prayers and observing the holidays?" What do you think?
  • New York and Montreal have been at odds for far too long. Stop the bagel wars, sign our bagel peace treaty!
  • Really, can you blame them?
  • “How I Stopped Hating Women of the Wall and Started Talking to My Mother.” Will you see it?
  • Taglit-Birthright Israel is redefining who they consider "Jewish" after a 17% drop in registration from 2011-2013. Is the "propaganda tag" keeping young people away?
  • Happy birthday William Shakespeare! Turns out, the Bard knew quite a bit about Jews.
  • Would you get to know racists on a first-name basis if you thought it might help you prevent them from going on rampages, like the recent shooting in Kansas City?
  • "You wouldn’t send someone for a math test without teaching them math." Why is sex ed still so taboo among religious Jews?
  • Russia's playing the "Jew card"...again.
  • "Israel should deal with this discrimination against Americans on its own merits... not simply as a bargaining chip for easy entry to the U.S." Do you agree?
  • For Moroccan Jews, the end of Passover means Mimouna. Terbhou ou Tse'dou! (good luck) How do you celebrate?
  • Calling all Marx Brothers fans!
  • What's it like to run the Palestine International Marathon as a Jew?
  • Does Israel have a racism problem?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.