A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Shirley Sherrod’s Contextual Nightmare


We’ve posted no shortage of pieces on political attacks that leave context on the cutting room floor to give the public a misleading impression. An opponent’s statements, cherry-picked and shorn of any language that could provide the intended meaning, can be shaped into a slashing ad.

Or they can lose a woman her job. The latest victim of the missing context trick is U.S. Department of Agriculture employee Shirley Sherrod. Her story shows the harm that can result from taking something out of context — or acting before all the facts are in.

Sherrod, the department’s director of rural development in Georgia, spoke to an NAACP audience on March 27. She was forced to resign for her words – at least, some of her words – this week when a clip of several minutes of her roughly 45-minute speech surfaced on conservative Andrew Breitbart’s website, where he labeled her remarks “racist” and proof of “bigotry” on the part of the NAACP.

Here’s the edited clip:

Sherrod talks about working to help families save their farms. When one day she got a call from a white farmer, she said, she listened to him speak to her with an air of superiority while she wondered how much she was going to help him. She wound up doing “enough,” she said. “I didn’t give him the full force of what I could do,” but she took him to a lawyer who was “one of his own kind.”

That segment of her talk was enough, apparently, for USDA to decide that Sherrod needed to be dumped. A department official called her multiple times and told her the White House wanted her to resign, Sherrod said in media interviews. She did so.

Only then did a tape of the entire speech surface. It quickly became clear that the climax, not to mention the moral, of Sherrod’s tale had been edited out of the version Breitbart posted. She had gone on to say that some time after their first encounter, the man called her back. He had received a foreclosure notice. Sherrod met him at his lawyer’s office and laid out a plan for the attorney.

Sherrod: About seven days before that land would have been sold on the courthouse steps, the farmer called me and said the lawyer wasn’t doing anything. And that’s when I spent time there in my office calling everybody I could think of to try to see – help me find a lawyer who would handle this. And finally I remembered I had gone to see one just 40 miles away in Americus…

Working with the farmer, Sherrod said, opened her eyes and made her realize that race wasn’t important.

Sherrod: It made me see it’s really about those who have versus those who don’t…They could be black, they could be white, they could be Hispanic. And it made me realize that I needed to work to help poor people.

Sherrod helped the man save his farm. How do we know? Because as this week’s ruckus developed, the farmer came forward. Roger Spooner and his wife, Eloise, spoke to CNN. They said they considered Sherrod a friend. “She helped us save our farm by getting in there and doing everything she could do,” Eloise Spooner said. “They haven’t treated her right.”

“I was never treated no nicer,” Roger Spooner said, describing how Sherrod rode with him and his wife to the lawyer’s office. She had “no racist attitude. Heck no.”

It also became clear that Sherrod was describing an incident that occurred 24 years ago, when she worked for a group called the Federation of Southern Cooperatives Land Assistance Fund in Georgia.

Sherrod’s personal nightmare of the last few days has also been a bad episode for the Obama administration.  On Wednesday, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack claimed sole responsibility for the decision, saying there was no White House involvement, and gave Sherrod “a personal and profound apology.”

“I did not think before I acted and for that reason this poor woman has gone through a very difficult time,” he said. “This was my decision, and I made it in haste.” He has offered Sherrod a different job, and she has not yet decided whether to accept it.

Vilsack, at least, seems to have learned something about context, and getting all the facts before acting.