A black former Agriculture Department official said Tuesday that she was forced to resign over her remarks about not having helped a white farmer, though the remarks may not have been racist after all.
Shirley Sherrod, the USDA's director of rural development in Georgia until Monday, told several news outlets Tuesday that she was pressured to step down by Deputy Undersecretary Cheryl Cook after a tape surfaced Monday on the Internet of a speech she gave March 27 to an NAACP chapter.
The swift action by the Obama administration's Agriculture Department, and a quick Monday night denunciation of Mrs. Sherrod by the NAACP, came after a week of political fights over racism charges made against the "tea party" movement by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, timing that Mrs. Sherrod blamed for her firing.
"The NAACP has not tried to contact me one time and they are the reason why this happened. They got into a fight with the tea party and all of this came out as a result of that," she told CNN on Tuesday. "I would have appreciated having the NAACP at least contact me … to try to get the truth."
The 2-minute, 38-second tape, posted initially on the conservative blog Big Government, showed Mrs. Sherrod admitting that she held back on offering aid to a white farmer because of his race. Mrs. Sherrod also criticized the Obama administration for not letting her tell her side of the story about the tape. "The administration, they were not interested in hearing the truth. No one wanted to hear the truth," she said.
"They asked me to resign, and in fact they harassed me as I was driving back to the state office from West Point, Ga., yesterday," Mrs. Sherrod told CNN. The last call "asked me to pull to the side of the road" and resign via her smart phone.
The White House said it had no role in the firing.
Mrs. Sherrod said Tuesday that in the speech, she was referring to an incident that happened 24 years ago, when she worked for a nonprofit farm aid organization, not the federal government. On the tape, Mrs. Sherrod admits that she gave the white farmer only minimal assistance, and then referred him to a white lawyer, who she decided was "one of his kind."
The taped speech shows the NAACP convention's audience laughing at least twice during her remarks, such as when she tells them about the white farmer's "superior" attitude and how she was weighing whether to help him. At the end, however, she appears to conclude that she was wrong to judge the farmer on the basis of his skin.
"That's when it was revealed to me that it's about poor versus those who have, and not so much about white and black," Mrs. Sherrod says on the tape. "It is about white and black — but it's not. It opened my eyes." The tape ends there.
Eloise Spooner, the wife of the farmer, praised Mrs. Sherrod and the work she later did to save their farm and said the USDA had not treated its worker fairly. "That ain't right. They have not treated her right," Mrs. Spooner told CNN.
The USDA put out a statement Tuesday afternoon defending the dismissal, saying the controversy had compromised Mrs. Sherrod's effectiveness.
The NAACP touched off an outcry last week when its delegates approved a resolution at its annual convention repudiating "the racist elements and activities of the tea party." Tea party leaders denied that the organization was racist and blasted the NAACP for what they called a reckless accusation.
The NAACP was quick to denounce Mrs. Sherrod on Monday, with President Benjamin Todd Jealous calling her behavior "intolerable" and "shameful."
"The reaction from many in the audience is disturbing," Mr. Jealous said.
But after she defended herself Tuesday, the group's initial statement was purged from its website. A new statement said "we were snookered by Fox News and Tea Party Activist Andrew Breitbart" and that the tape had been "deliberately edited to create a false impression of racial bias."
The NAACP also asks the Agriculture Department to reconsider the dismissal.
Mr. Breitbart, whose Big Government blog posted the video, said Tuesday that the point was the NAACP audience's reaction to Mrs. Sherrod's account of her past actions.
"This was not about Shirley Sherrod. This was about the NAACP attacking the Tea Party and this is showing racism at an NAACP event. I did not ask for Shirley Sherrod to be fired," he told CNN, adding that Mrs. Sherrod "should have the right to defend herself. But what you see on the video are people … applauding her overt racism that she is representing."
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