Two open letters and much response
“Why did you write President Obama an open letter? Why didn’t you just send it to him privately?” The questions were genuine although there was clear disapproval in the voice. The questions were asked in good faith and I tried to answer in good faith.
The questions were about the two open letters that I wrote President Barack Obama concerning the Shirley Sherrod fiasco. Although it dominated the news day after day, I want to briefly explain the situation because some Sketches readers in Africa, Asia, etc. may not have seen the news. Also, some in the U. S. don’t watch the news.
Shirley Sherrod is a 62-year-old black woman from Georgia. She has been struggling to lift those cast down and include those left out for some 44 years. The lifting includes whites as well as blacks in spite of her father being viciously killed by a white farmer.
I have known Shirley Sherrod since 1971 through her work with the Federation of Southern Cooperatives and other organizations. My wife, Faya Rose Toure’, represented Shirley, her husband, and other black farmers under the umbrella of New Communities, a non-profit corporation that lost nearly six thousand acres as a result of United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) racial discrimination. Last year, New Communities was awarded $13 million in compensation.
In August 2009, Sherrod was appointed USDA State Director of Rural Development. She set about educating Georgia farmers and others about available resources and other issues. She spoke at many meetings as part of her mission.
Last week, a blogger named Andrew Brietbart edited a recorded a speech which Sherrod gave at a NAACP gathering. It was done in such a way that Sherrod appeared to be talking about discriminating against a white farmer in her USDA position. In fact, the incident happened in 1985 and was really about how she overcame the limitations of race by serving a white farmer. Brietbart placed this distorted recording on his website and Fox News ran with it. USDA forced Sherrod to resign and the NAACP publicly condemned her. Neither looked at the entire recording before acting. It was a great injustice.
When USDA leaders finally viewed the recording, it was discovered that they were completely wrong. However, they decided not to reinstate Sherrod. After continuing pressure by various leaders, the media, and citizens, USDA decided to reconsider. Eventually they apologized and offered her a position in civil rights.
I wrote the first open letter urging President Obama to correct the injustice. If not, it would likely cause him considerable problems with African Americans, his most loyal base. I described it as a watershed moment that may result in the benefit of the doubt flowing from rather than to President Obama. When USDA offered Sherrod a different position, I wrote a second open letter stating that it was critical to reinstate her to the same position for which she was forced to resign.
Now, let me try to answer the questions with which I opened this Sketches. I wrote these two open letters for several reasons. First, I felt strongly that an open letter was the best way to get the message to the President. If I had sent the letter only to him, I feel like it would have gotten lost in the deluge of mail received every day. Second, I wanted to help educate the public about the issue by providing another perspective. Third, I wanted to further the dialogue on this issue because it has many implications. Fourth, and most important is, I just had a strong feeling that I should write about it.
Let me share with you this response to the first open letter: “Charles; See attached letter. I think Hank has this right. Knowing Hank, I do not think that this is an action that he took lightly. When Hank speaks, wise people do well to listen, intently. I would urge you to do your best to see that the President is personally made aware of Hank’s letter and the importance of giving very substantial consideration to the request put forth in the letter. I think that this is a very significant matter, and the President has been very poorly served by his representatives in the White House and senior members of USDA, including the Secretary. Best, Dennis. Without an open letter, this communication may not have found this route to the President.
A number of newspapers published the first open letter, including the New York Times. It was also on radio, television, and blogs, such as the Huffington Post. I think I provided another perspective to the public. I also received various other responses. One just said, “Excellent letter! I will post on Facebook.” In addition, I have had many discussions as a result of these letters. I think that open letters was the right thing to do. What do you say?
EPILOGUE – “Lean not unto your own understanding,” is a passage from the Bible. I used to vehemently reject this concept. Now I am willing to lean on understandings much higher than mine. They often come in the form of strong feelings.
Sen. Hank Sanders represents Dallas County in the Alabama Legislature.