WASHINGTON – A black employee who resigned from the Agriculture Department over comments at a Georgia NAACP meeting said Tuesday the White House forced her out of her job over a manufactured racial controversy.
Shirley Sherrod, who until Tuesday was USDA's director of rural development in Georgia, said she was on the road Monday when USDA deputy undersecretary Cheryl Cook called her and told her the White House wanted her to resign. "They called me twice," Sherrod told The Associated Press in an interview. "The last time they asked me to pull over the side of the road and submit my resignation on my Blackberry, and that's what I did."
A USDA spokesman would not comment on whether the White House was involved, but Secretary Tom Vilsack issued a statement saying the agency has no tolerance for discrimination.
The NAACP, meanwhile, appeared to be reconsidering its response to Sherrod. The civil rights group initially condemned the employee's comments, but officials said Tuesday that it is conducting a more thorough review.
The controversy began Monday when the conservative website biggovernment.com posted a two-minute, 38-second video clip of Sherrod's remarks to a local NAACP banquet.
In the video, Sherrod talks about the first time a white farmer came to her for help when she worked for a nonprofit rural farm aid group in 1986. She said he came in acting "superior" to her and that she debated how much help to give him.
"I was struggling with the fact that so many black people had lost their farmland and here I was faced with helping a white person save their land," she said.
Initially, she said, "I didn't give him the full force of what I could do" and only gave him enough help to keep his case progressing.
But, she said, his situation ultimately "opened my eyes" that helping farmers wasn't so much about race but was "about the poor versus those who have."
The video ends before her speech concludes. Sherrod said Tuesday the clip appears to intentionally misconstrue the message of the story, which is that the case taught her that whites are struggling just like blacks. She says she ultimately became close friends with the farmer and helped him for two years to save his farm.
"My point in telling that story is that working with him helped me to see that it wasn't just a black and white issue," she told The AP. "That's why I take the time to tell that story is to tell people we need to get beyond it and work together."
Sherrod, who became USDA's director of rural development in Georgia last year, said the administration showed a lack of backbone in its reaction.
Biggovernment.com, which gained fame after releasing video of workers for the community organizing group ACORN counseling actors posing as a pimp and prostitute, offered the video as evidence that the NAACP condones racism.
The national NAACP, which recently accused the Tea Party of condoning racist elements, immediately responded by condemning Sherrod's comments and supporting USDA's handling of the matter.
"According to her remarks, she mistreated a white farmer in need of assistance because of his race," NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous said in a statement Monday night. "We are appalled by her actions, just as we are with abuses of power against farmers of color and female farmers."
After years of civil rights lawsuits against the agency, Vilsack said USDA has "been working hard through the past 18 months to reverse the checkered civil rights history at the department and take the issue of fairness and equality very seriously."