In January, during a visit to Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, to commemorate the national Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday, I was in a small group that had dinner with Shirley Sherrod and her husband, the Rev. Charles Sherrod.
When news broke Feb. 14 that the former U.S. Department of Agriculture employee had gone through with her threat to file a defamation lawsuit against conservative blogger Andrew Brietbart, (the man who thrust her name into the national news), I wasn’t surprised.
That evening, the Sherrods told me that the lawsuit was coming down the pike. They shared that they were determined to make a point and clear their good name.
Last summer Shirley Sherrod went from little-known government official to the subject of national shame and then redemption at Internet warp speed. Brietbart posted on his website Biggovernment.com , who is black, giving a speech at an NAACP gathering where she described her shortcomings 20 years ago in helping a white farmer. In the speech, Sherrod, whose own father, Hosie Miller, a Baptist deacon, was gunned down by a white farmer who was never charged or convicted, admitted to not doing her best for the man because he was “acting superior.”
By now, it’s well known that the full speech was actually Sherrod’s inspirational message — similar to the one she gave at ODU — about racial reconciliation and overcoming her past to help black and white farmers who share the same economic struggles. The white farmer, Roger Spooner, and his wife, Eloise, saw on television how Sherrod was being vilified in Briebarts’s effort to embarrass the NAACP. They called the news media to defend her, setting the record straight.
“I know that only God turned this thing around,” Sherrod told us, recounting how the Spooners just happened to be watching TV and stepped up on their own to help her.
However, the damage had been done as Brietbart’s edited video went viral and the relatively quiet life the Sherrods were leading was rocked to the core.
At dinner, the Sherrods, shared what those hours and days were like last summer. She talked about the strain of the more than three-hour drive home alone down I-75 to Albany from the USDA’s offices in Athens, Georgia, after she was told by phone to pull over and submit her resignation as Georgia director of Rural Development via email. Stunned, Shirley Sherrod was thinking about what she would tell her grandchildren. Her husband’s thoughts were even deeper.
“All I was praying about was that she would just make it home,” Charles Sherrod told me.
He reflected on when, as a civil rights worker, he had first met Shirley while visiting her home to encourage voter registration. Her “beautiful” sisters opened the door, and told him that the oldest was even prettier.
Ironically, Mr. Sherrod (pictured at left with his wife) was the most familiar with this type of stress under fire. He is well known in civil rights circles as one of the key leaders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. He was its first field secretary and director in southwest Georgia. Mr. Sherrod and other leaders launched a sit-in at the bus station near Albany State College that led to the Albany Movement to desegregate the city. Charles shared how police had beaten him to the point of certain death, and how he was saved by Shirley Sherrod’s aunt, who shielded him from the baton blows with her petite body.
Had Brietbart known the Sherrods’ history, had he done his homework, he would’ve been skeptical of the edited video clip. That is, unless he had access to the entire speech and deliberately presented it out of context.
Filed in D.C. Superior Court on Feb. 11, the lawsuit names Breitbart, producer Larry O’Connor, and a “John Doe” who allegedly provided Brietbart with the entire speech. It claims that Shirley Sherrod suffered defamation and emotional distress. It asks that Breitbart remove the edited clip of her speech, apologize, and pay unspecified damages.
It’s not about the money, Shirley Sherrod told me, but to make a point against reckless journalism that can destroy lives.
In response, Breitbart issued a statement saying, “I can promise you this: neither I, nor my journalistic websites, will or can be silenced by the institutional Left, which is obviously funding this lawsuit.”
Proving libel is a tall order. Because Sherrod was a public official, it has to be proven that Breitbart was deliberately reckless and knew that he was posting false statements. I think she has made her point, though. It’s one that trained journalists have known for generations and many bloggers also understand: Do your homework. Get the facts straight before you post.