Fired USDA official offers Obama a lesson on civil rights

They spoke as two black people who’ve felt the sting and stigma of racial discrimination. But Shirley Sherrod said that when she talked by phone with President Obama, she knew his racial history didn’t match hers — that a biracial man born and raised in Honolulu couldn’t know what it’s like to grow up in the Deep South in an era of cross burnings and segregation.

So Sherrod hoped to offer the president some insights, asking him during their seven-minute conversation to come to Georgia and tour some of the civil rights landmarks that shaped the experience of the Southern black underclass.

Obama didn’t immediately accept. Instead, the president invited her to e-mail him thoughts on civil rights issues, using a White House aide as an intermediary, Sherrod said in an interview Friday.

“His message was to let me know he cared about discrimination and wanted to help,” Sherrod said. As for the offer to lead Obama on the tour, “he did not commit,” she said.

The White House on Friday confirmed her account of the call, which took place a day earlier.

Sherrod was home in Albany, Ga., recuperating from a weeklong ordeal in which she was wrongly painted as a racist, fired, and then offered her job back. Along the way she got a personal apology from the secretary of the Agriculture Department and the president of the United States.

Was that enough to persuade her to return to the USDA?

She isn’t sure. Sherrod said she has not yet decided whether to accept the job in the agency’s Office of Advocacy and Outreach, which serves disadvantaged farmers.

One worry is that she’ll be the lone figure working to rectify a sordid history of racial prejudice in the department, she said. Plus, some of the employees responsible for racial discrimination still work at the department, she added.

“I don’t want to be the one person in the whole department that everyone is thinking will rid the climate of discrimination,” she said. “I don’t want that.”

Offering more details about Obama’s phone call, she said the president volunteered that he wasn’t the one who ordered her firing. But she believes someone from the White House was behind the demand that she be ousted.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has said he was the one responsible for Sherrod’s firing, based on a 2½-minute video that conservative media entrepreneur Andrew Breitbart had posted on his website. The White House has denied it played any role.

Sherrod doesn’t buy that.

“I think someone in the White House did it,” she said. “I don’t think it came from him [Obama]. But I believe it came from the White House.” She said she was explicitly told just that by Cheryl Cook, the department undersecretary who phoned Sherrod on Monday and carried out the firing.

The video clip contained misleading excerpts from a speech Sherrod gave to an NAACP group in March. In the speech, she said she was at first reluctant to help a white farmer in an encounter 24 years ago when she worked for a nonprofit organization.

A review of the full, 45-minute video, however, shows that Sherrod actually renounced reverse racism in that 1986 encounter, recognizing that her mission was to help poor people regardless of race.

After the full video came out, Vilsack offered a profuse apology and said he made a bad decision that he’ll “have to live with … for a long, long time.”

No hard feelings, Sherrod said.

“I don’t hold grudges,” she said.