WASHINGTON – The White House did a sudden about-face Wednesday and begged for forgiveness from the black Agriculture Department employee whose ouster ignited an embarrassing political firestorm over race. She was offered a “unique opportunity” for a new job and said she was thinking it over.
With lightning speed, the controversy moved from Monday’s forced resignation of a minor U.S. Ag official in Georgia to Tuesday’s urgent discussions at the White House amid a rising public outcry and then to Wednesday’s repeated apologies and pleas for Shirley Sherrod to come back.
Sherrod said she resigned under White House pressure after the airing of a video of racial remarks she made at an NAACP gathering. But Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said repeatedly on Wednesday that the decision had been his alone.
“I asked for Shirley’s forgiveness and she was gracious enough to extend it to me,” he said after reaching her by telephone.
Sherrod, in a phone interview with The Associated Press, said, “They did make an offer. I just told him I need to think about it.”
The controversy threatened to grow into more than a three-day distraction for President Obama’s administration, with important midterm congressional elections nearing and partisan feelings already running high. Obama said nothing publicly about the developments while administration officials tried to simultaneously show his concern and to distance him from the original ousting.
It all began with the airing of a video on a conservative website of Sherrod’s remarks about not doing all she could to help a white farmer two decades ago. After she was told to resign — with the NAACP declaring its approval — the situation grew more complicated when the rest of the edited video was released by the NAACP and Sherrod insisted her remarks were about reconciliation, not the stoking of racism.
Wednesday afternoon, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs was apologizing to Sherrod “for the entire administration” and saying that officials did not know all the facts when she was fired. He said he didn’t know if the president would talk to Sherrod himself.
The president had been briefed, Gibbs said, and “he talked about the fact that a disservice had been done, an injustice had happened and, because the facts had changed, a review of the decision based on those facts should be taken.”
Said Vilsack, who also met with the Congressional Black Caucus, “This is a good woman. She’s been put through hell. I could have done and should have done a better job.”
“Shirley and I talked about a unique opportunity at USDA,” he said. “With all that she has seen, endured and accomplished, it would be invaluable to have her experience, commitment and record of service at USDA. I hope she considers staying with the department.”
“I accept the apology,” Sherrod said on CNN after watching Gibbs talk to reporters on television. But she said the apology took too long.
Sherrod was asked to resign after conservative bloggers posted a video of her saying she didn’t initially give a white farmer as much help as she could have 24 years ago, when she was working for a farmers’ aid group. Sherrod said she used the story in her speech to the NAACP to promote racial reconciliation and that the edited video distorted her remarks.
Like the administration, the NAACP reversed its stance on Sherrod and called for her to be rehired.
Black leaders piled on Wednesday in criticizing Sherrod’s ouster. The Rev. Jesse Jackson called on the administration to apologize and give Sherrod her job back. The Congressional Black Caucus, with 42 members of Congress, called for Sherrod to be reinstated immediately.
However, the Rev. Al Sharpton said black leaders should refrain from calling for an apology from the Obama administration, saying that creates the impression that black leadership is fractured. “We are only greasing the rails for the right wing to run a train through our ambitions and goals for having civil and human rights in this country,” Sharpton said.
The episode comes as the NAACP and the conservative tea party group have been trading charges of racism.
The two-minute, 38-second clip posted Monday by BigGovernment.com was presented as evidence that the NAACP was hypocritical in its recent resolution condemning what it calls racist elements of the tea party. The website’s owner, Andrew Breitbart, said the video shows the civil rights group condoning the same kind of racism it says it wants to erase.In the clip posted on BigGovernment.com, Sherrod described the first time a white farmer came to her for help. It was 1986, and she worked for a nonprofit rural farm aid group. She said the farmer came in acting “superior” to her and she debated how much help to give him.
“I was struggling with the fact that so many black people had lost their farmland, and here I was faced with helping a white person save their land,” Sherrod said.
Initially, she said, “I didn’t give him the full force of what I could do” and only gave him enough help to keep his case progressing. Eventually, she said, his situation “opened my eyes” that whites were struggling just like blacks, and helping farmers wasn’t so much about race but was “about the poor versus those who have.”
People who knew Sherrod were quick to defend her, including the wife of the white farmer whom she discussed in the speech. “We probably wouldn’t have (our farm) today if it hadn’t been for her leading us in the right direction,” said Eloise Spooner of Iron City, Ga.
In the full 43-minute video, Sherrod tells the story of her father’s death in 1965, saying he was killed by white men who were never charged. She says she made a commitment to stay in the South the night of her father’s death.
“When I made that commitment I was making that commitment to black people and to black people only,” she said. “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.”
Sherrod said she was on the road Monday when USDA Deputy Undersecretary Cheryl Cook called her and told her to pull over and submit her resignation on her Blackberry because the White House wanted her out.
“It hurts me that they didn’t even try to attempt to see what is happening here, they didn’t care,” Sherrod said.