For courage and grace under truly nonsensical fire, Shirley Sherrod, former Georgia state director of rural development for the US Department of Agriculture, is my hero of the year.
On 19 July, rightwing blogger Andrew Breitbart released video excerpts of a speech Sherrod, who is black, had given atan NAACP event in March, in which she supposedly boasted that she had dragged her feet in helping a white farmer. Within moments the story went viral — and vicious — throughout the conservative media; Ben Jealous, head of the organisation, tweeted his disapproval of Sherrod; by the end of the day, agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack had fired her.
In fact, the excerpts completely misrepresented the speech in which Sherrod movingly described feelings she had had to overcome (and did overcome) when in 1986 a white farmer, Roger Spooner, had come to her for help saving his farm. Given that Sherrod's father had been murdered when she was 17 years old by a white person who was never prosecuted and that a cross had soon after been burned in front of the family home, perhaps she had a lot to get over. The next day, the now very elderly Roger and Eloise Spooner stepped forward to defend Sherrod for having saved their land. Obama called and Vilsack offered to give her back her job. Sherrod declined.
The real Shirley Sherrod has been a well-known civil rights activist in Georgia since the late 60s. What does it say about the US that a hack like Breitbart can destroy a decades-long career in one day? That the head of the nation's premier civil rights organisation is so ignorant of the history of his own movement? That the administration of the first black president is so fearful of the rightwing media that it didn't even take a day to think it over before jumping on their absurd bandwagon?
In a just world, Vilsack would have been fired and Sherrod would be sitting at his desk. In this world, she has the satisfaction that, of all the people involved in this sordid tale, she and those ancient white farmers kept their heads, their dignity and their historical memory intact.