The controversy over the injustice done to Shirley Sherrod, the African-American woman whose comments on race were taken out of context, misreported, and who was fired from her job at the U.S. Department of Agriculture does not capture the essence of her personal journey. While we focus on the media and the craven haste of her dismissal, her testimony fades into the background. Shirley Sherrod's testimony is that she came to realize that the major problem in the United States is not race, but class.
When Shirley Sherrod was 17 years old, her father was killed by white men in Georgia. There were three witnesses, but the murder was never punished because a grand jury refused to indict. Another relative was lynched, and the white man accused of his murder was set free. Later he was tried and convicted for depriving his victim of his civil rights. The conviction was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court because the prosecution could not prove that the killer was thinking of depriving his victim of his civil rights at the time of the murder. The prosecution could not prove intent.
After her father's death, a gang of white men burned a cross on her family's lawn. Her mother was not intimidated, but faced the gang with her gun. She called a group of black men who came to the house, surrounded the white men, and told them to be on their way.
She tells of the night of her father's funeral when she made a commitment to stay in the south. This was a reversal from her ambition to leave the south, the farm, and the racial hatred and violence of the south in those days. She tells of praying, seeking God's direction in how she could serve God in the south. She had no idea what she would do. God opened the door for her to work with farmers helping them to save their land. She said: "When you are true to what God wants you to do, the path just opens up."
One day a white farmer came to her office for help. She says he came with an attitude of superiority that was off-putting. She decided to put him in touch with a white lawyer she thought could help him. When she learned that the white lawyer refused to do all he could to help the man save his farm, she called everyone she knew who could help the man. In the end, she was successful and the man was able to keep his farm.
The episode was a revelation to her. She realized that: "It's about the poor vs. those who have. It opened my eyes." In her speech she goes on to recall the history of race in America. There was once a time when both blacks and whites worked as indentured servants. The moment slavery for life was instituted only for blacks, the racial divide was established and has haunted this country from that day to this. Shirley Sherrod's revelation is that this racial divide serves the elite. The rich get richer, and the rest fight over the scrapes and race.
At the end of Martin Luther King Jr.'s life, he was in the midst of organizing a Poor People's March on Washington. He had come to recognize that poor people of every race were suffering the same injustices and living economically marginal lives. It is time to begin again where King ended and refuse to let race divide us as we work for economic justice in the United States and in the world.
Dr. Valerie Elverton Dixon is an independent scholar who publishes lectures and essays at JustPeaceTheory.com. She received her PhD in religion and society from Temple University and taught Christian ethics at United Theological Seminary and Andover Newton Theological School.