After hearing Minister Louis Farrakhan roundly denounced by black and Jewish leaders in 1984, purportedly for describing Judaism as a gutter religion, I called Farrakhan before writing a story for the Chicago Tribune. Farrakhan denied he had ever described Judaism as a gutter religion and offered up his life to anyone who could prove he had made such a comment.
He provided me with an audio tape of the speech in question. Listening very closely, I realized that the Nation of Islam leader had called Judaism a dirty religion, not a gutter religion as had been widely reported. Of course, that didnt make Jews feel any better.
Still, if youre going to attack someone, at least get the facts straight. And thats exactly what NAACP President Benjamin Jealous failed to do before unfairly criticizing Shirley Sherrod, who was fired by Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack on the basis of a doctored tape of one of her speeches. Jealous didnt merely join the parade of misinformed critics, he volunteered to serve as drum major.
Before listening to Sherrods remarks or contacting her to see if reports about her speech were accurate, Jealous issued a strongly-worded statement denouncing Sherrod, the wife of legendary SNCC organizer Charles Sherrod. The statement was initially posted on the NAACPs website, but later removed. However, I have a copy of the original statement because it was e-mailed to me and other journalists.
In the statement, distributed to reporters shortly before midnight on July 19, Jealous said: We concur with US Agriculture Secretary Vilsack in accepting the resignation of Shirley Sherrod for her remarks at a local NAACP Freedom Fund banquet. Racism is about the abuse of power. Sherrod had it in her position at USDA. According to her remarks, she mistreated a white farmer in need of assistance because of his race. We are appalled by her actions, just as we are with abuses of power against farmers of color and female farmers. actions were shameful, he continued. While she went on to explain in the story that she ultimately realized her mistake, as well as the common predicament of working people of all races, she gave no indication she had attempted to right the wrong she had done to this man.
If Jealous had viewed the videotape of the speech before commenting, he wouldnt have made such a fool of himself and the NAACP. When Jealous did get around to seeing the tape, he issued another statement on July 20 saying Sherrod had been unfairly maligned. He stated,
…We have come to the conclusion we were snookered by Fox News and Tea Party Activist Andrew Breitbart into believing she had harmed white farmers because of racial bias.
The NAACP was duped by Fox News and the Tea Party? Thats a sad commentary on the NAACP and the state of black leadership. How could the nations oldest civil rights organization allow itself to be snookered by its avowed enemies? And if the president of the NAACP is that gullible, what else he has been snookered on?
Although he didnt acknowledge that he was snookered, Secretary Vilsack offered to re-hire Sherrod, who has yet to decide whether she wants to return.
In her speech to the Douglas, Ga. NAACP 24 years ago, long before she became head of the Department of Agricultures rural development office in Georgia, Sherrod recalled the death of her father.
It was 45 years ago today that my fathers funeral was held, she said. I was a young girl at the age of 17 when my father was murdered by a white man in Baker County. In Baker County, the murder of black people occurred periodically and in every case the white men who murdered them were never punished. It was no different in my fathers case. There were three witnesses to his murder but the grand jury refused to indict the white man who murdered him.
Working for a non-profit group that aided farmers, Sherrod stated, You know, for the first time I was faced with having to help a white farmer save his farm. He took a long time talking but he was trying to show me he was superior. I knew what he was doing but he had come to me for help. What he didnt know, while he was taking all that time trying to show me he was superior to me, was I was trying to decide just how much help I was going to give him.
In interviews with reporters, Roger and Eloise Spooner, the white couple at the center of the controversy, said Sherrod gave them enough help in the mid-1980s to save their family farm.
The point of Sherrods story was that she like whites needed to move beyond racial prejudice.
She said, …Working with him made me see that its really about those who have versus those who dont, you know, and they could be black, 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 dont have access the way others have.
Ben Jealous says the next time he is presented with information from right-wingers, We will consider the source and be more deliberate in responding. Its appalling that he wasnt doing that all along.
George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine and the NNPA News Service, is a keynote speaker, moderator, and media coach. He can be reached through his Web site, www.georgecurry.com You can also follow him at www.twitter.com/currygeorge.