Obama cabinet official reconsidering firing of USDA employee over remarks

Jon Ward Contributor
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Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in an early morning statement Wednesday that he was reconsidering his decision to fire Shirley Sherrod, a USDA official from Georgia, over racially tinged remarks, after the White House weighed in late Tuesday in support of such a move.

Vilsack said he is going to “conduct a thorough review and consider additional facts,” after Sherrod fiercely defended herself on Tuesday and a full video of her remarks from March was made available that showed a much fuller context for the statements she made in the excerpted video that surfaced Monday.

The White House contacted Vilsack late Tuesday to voice support for taking a second look at the decision to fire Sherrod, though a White House official who spoke with The Daily Caller Wednesday morning said the decision was mutual.

The full 43-minute speech by Sherrod, who was until Monday the USDA’s state director in Georgia for rural development, showed clearly that the racially charged comments that appeared Monday were meant by Sherrod as an example of how she had been wrong in the past.

Most of the speech is about racial reconciliation. Sherrod begins with a long anecdote about the murder of her father in 1965 by a white man, who she said was let off by a grand jury despite the existence of three witnesses. The night of his murder, Sherrod said, she made a vow to stay in Georgia, which she had long wanted to leave, and “do something in answer to what happened.”

“I would stay in the South and devote my life to working for change. And I’ve been true to that commitment all these 45 years,” Sherrod said.

Then 17 years old, she said, “when I made that commitment I was making that commitment to black people and to black people only.”

“But you know, God will show you things and he’ll put things in your path so that you realize that the struggle is really about poor people,” she added.

The next sentence is the first line that appeared on the video released Monday on the conservative website, BigGovernment.com, in which Sherrod tells the story of a white farmer coming to her for help and of her deciding to only help him half-heartedly because he was white.

“I was struggling with the fact that so many black people had lost their farm land, and here I was faced with having to help a white person save their land, so I didn’t give him the full force of what I could do,” she said. “I did enough.”

Near the end of the less than three-minute clip released Monday, which led to Sherrod’s firing, her remarks hinted that she had realized her thoughts and actions were wrong.

“It was revealed to me that it’s about poor versus those who have. It’s not so much about white — it is about white and black — but it’s not, you know. It opened my eyes, because I took him to one of his own,” she said, referring to a white attorney who she, then a nonprofit agency worker, had taken the farmer to see.

Andrew Breitbart, who runs BigGovernment.com, said Tuesday on CNN that he had video of Sherrod’s full remarks but was “protecting” the person who sent him the video by not posting the entire video online.

“If I get the OK from the people who have the rights to the video to put it up on the Internet, I have no problem with it,” Breitbart said.

Sherrod was forced to resign Monday. She said Tuesday she was told the White House wanted her to resign, but Vilsack has said it was his decision. White House officials have said they communicated about Sherrod with USDA officials before and after she was fired, and that President Obama himself was aware of the situation, but deny putting any pressure on the USDA as to what course of action to take.

But the full video shows Sherrod explaining that the attorney she took the farmer to did not really help him, and that she went on to help him save his farm, a fact that the farmer, Roger Spooner, backed up in interviews with media on Tuesday.

“Working with him made me see that it’s really about those who have versus those who don’t. You know they could be back, they could be white, they could be Hispanic,” Sherrod said. “It made me realize then that I needed to work to help poor people, those who don’t have access the way others have.”

“I’ve come a long way. I knew that I couldn’t live with hate,” she said.

Sherrod also referred to the audience in the room, which appears on the video to have been only black people: “It’s sad that we don’t have a room full of white and blacks tonight, because we have to overcome the divisions that we have. We have to get to the point where, as Toni Morrison said, race exists but it doesn’t matter.”

And Sherrod urged her audience to be proactive in seeking reconciliation with other races: “The change has to start with us. Somehow we’ve got to make the other side of town work with us. We’ve got to make our communities what they need to be.”

Sherrod does say in the video that much of the protests against Obama’s health care law, which was passed by Congress a week before her speech amid great acrimony, were fueled by racist antipathy toward the president.

“I haven’t seen such mean-spirited people as I’ve seen lately over this issue of health care. Some of the racism that we thought was buried: didn’t it surface?” she said. “Now we endured eight years of the Bush’s, and we didn’t do the stuff these Republicans are doing because you have a black president.”

Sherrod also spoke at two points in the video of how secure and well-paying government jobs are, and encouraged young people to seek them out.

Breitbart has pointed to these statements as evidence of “why the Tea Party is upset.”

“It is because bureaucrats like Shirley Sherrod think that when they get into a position of power that they can hire people and not fire them,” he said on CNN.

However, though her calls for young people to obtain government jobs receive the most emphasis, Sherrod does encourage young people in the audience to “start thinking about how to become entrepreneurs.”

Here is the video excerpt posted on BigGovernment.com on Monday:

Here is the full 43-minute speech by Sherrod:

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