New Emails Show What White House Officials Really Thought Of Shirley Sherrod’s Speech

Chuck Ross Investigative Reporter
Font Size:

At least two White House officials were privately critical of the full remarks made by former Department of Agriculture official Shirley Sherrod at an NAACP event in March 2010, new emails show.

Sherrod was forced to resign her position at the USDA after a two-and-a-half minute clip of her 40-plus minute speech, which focused heavily on racial topics, was posted online by Andrew Breitbart on July 19, 2010.

“It’s not the most enlightened view of race,” wrote White House cabinet secretary Christopher Lu in a July 21, 2010 email to then-White House press secretary Robert Gibbs. Gibbs had asked Lu if he viewed the full video of Sherrod’s speech, which she gave at an NAACP event in Georgia.

In the portion of the speech first published by Breitbart, Sherrod, who is black, told of an encounter she had in 1986 while working at a non-profit with a white farmer who was faced with losing his property. Sherrod said the man acting as if he was superior to her, so she decided to withhold the “full force” of help that she could provide.

After those remarks came to light, USDA Sec. Tom Vilsack accepted Sherrod’s resignation, which was essentially coerced out of her.

But the full video of Sherrod’s speech surfaced the next day showing that Sherrod told the story about the white farmer in order to make a larger point about racial reconciliation. Both the USDA and White House adamantly apologized to Sherrod and offered her a new position after the full video was released.

Though the full video provided more context and showed that Sherrod was not bragging about racist behavior, the new emails show that Lu and Gibbs still did not believe her remarks were appropriate for a federal official. Those sentiments were never stated publicly.

“If this draft speech went through the clearance process, we’d never let her give it,” Lu wrote in his email to Gibbs. “We’re trying to get it transcribed now. I suspect when the whole thing gets examined, won’t look good for Sherrod.”


Gibbs forwarded those comments to senior White House adviser Valerie Jarrett, adding his own commentary.

“Full of stereotypes and broad generalizations about race, and what I believe is a flawed recitation of race relations in this country,” wrote Gibbs.

“Probably in the eyes of the beholder,” Jarrett responded.

The emails between the three White House aides were released last Friday in a court filing pertaining to a defamation lawsuit Sherrod filed against Breitbart and his video editor, Larry O’Connor, in 2011. When Breitbart died unexpectedly in 2012, Sherrod transferred the suit to his wife, Susannah.

The White House officials’ private criticism of Sherrod’s full comments are at odds with their public stance, lawyers for Breitbart and O’Connor argue in their brief.

“The White House emails reflect a tension between what was being stated internally versus what was being stated publicly by the White House and Secretary Vilsack about Mrs. Sherrod’s speech,” claim attorneys for Breitbart and O’Connor in Friday’s filing.

The attorneys claim Breitbart published the video to show the NAACP audience’s reaction to Sherrod’s remarks about withholding help from the white farmer. Some in the audience appeared to approve of her treatment of the farmer. Breitbart was attempting to make the point that the NAACP was inconsistent in its views on race, as the organization had just days before the publication of the video condemned tea party groups’ for allegedly tolerating racism among its members, the attorneys have argued.

Breitbart maintained, as the attorneys do now, that the publication of the video was never intended for Sherrod to lose her job and that it was White House and USDA officials’ rush to judgement that led to her removal.

Whether Breitbart or O’Connor helped cause Sherrod’s forced resignation is a secondary defense, the attorneys claim. They argue Sherrod’s suit has no merit in the first place because the publication of the video, which was paired with a 1,000 word blog post written by Breitbart, is protected speech. (RELATED: White House Gave The ‘Go-Ahead’ To Force Shirley Sherrod To Resign)

The new emails were included in a larger batch of documents first reported by The Associated Press on Monday.

In that report, the AP picked up on another White House inconsistency.

In an email sent on the day the first video clip was published, Vilsack said he was waiting for the “go-ahead” from the White House to accept Sherrod’s resignation.

That email conflicts with statements made by Vilsack and White House officials, including Gibbs and his successor, Jay Carney, all of whom claimed the decision to force Sherrod’s resignation was solely Vilsack’s.

To further their claim that the White House and the USDA rushed to judgement to fire Sherrod, the Breitbart and O’Connor attorneys also point out in their brief that Sherrod told USDA officials before her forced ouster that there was more context to her NAACP speech that was not included in the first video.

Sherrod’s boss, Dallas Tonsager, conveyed that point to Vilsack even before Sherrod’s resignation was secured.

“Shirley explained to [USDA official] Cheryl [Cook] that this piece of tape shows only one small part of a longer story she told of her personal transformation beyond race.”

Despite their awareness that Sherrod might have exculpatory evidence to save her job, USDA and White House officials pushed for her resignation anyway.

Follow Chuck on Twitter