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Seeing the South With Shirley Sherrod

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.

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