WASHINGTON — A black employee who resigned from the Agriculture Department over comments at a Georgia NAACP meeting said today the White House forced her out of her job over a manufactured racial controversy.
Shirley Sherrod said she was on the road Monday after an event in rural Georgia 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."
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 chapter.
In the video, she says the first time a white farmer came in for help, he was acting "superior" to her and that she struggled to decide how much help to provide him when so many black farmers were struggling. She said she didn't give him the full force of help she could have, but gave him enough.
The website called it proof that the NAACP — which recently accused the Tea Party of including racist elements — condones racism.
Sherrod said her comments to the local NAACP group that she withheld support some 24 years ago from a farmer because he was white are really part of a story of racial reconciliation. She said she ultimately became friends with the farmer and worked closely with him for two years to keep him from losing his farm. At the time, she worked for a nonprofit farm aid group.
"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. "It was about those who have and those who do not. That's why I take the time to tell that story is to tell people we need to get beyond it and work together."
Hours after her resignation, Sherrod accused administration officials of lacking backbone. A USDA spokesman would not comment on whether the White House was involved.
Secretary Tom Vilsack issued a statement saying the agency has no tolerance for discrimination.
"We have 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," the statement said.
National NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous issued a statement Monday night — before Sherrod's explanation — supporting the resignation. Jealous said the group opposes racism of all kinds.
"According to her remarks, she mistreated a white farmer in need of assistance because of his race," he said. "We are appalled by her actions, just as we are with abuses of power against farmers of color and female farmers."