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Former USDA Official Shirley Sherrod Is Keynote Speaker for ODU's Martin Luther King Jr. Day Program

The keynote speaker for Old Dominion University's 27th annual observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day is someone who has spent her career working on racial justice issues, and who ended up getting caught up in today's complex racial politics in America.

In July 2010, Shirley Sherrod was forced to resign from her position as Georgia State Director of Rural Development for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) after conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart posted video excerpts on his website of a Sherrod address at an NAACP event. According to Breitbart, her comments showed how a federally appointed executive racially discriminated against a white farmer.

The video set off a storm of controversy and criticism of Sherrod. Subsequent events showed that the posted video was taken out of context and, in fact, was a part of broader comments that conveyed a completely different meaning. The NAACP apologized for its critical comments, and her boss at the USDA also apologized, offering her another job, which she declined.

Sherrod will speak about this issue, as well as other events in her life that have helped shape her beliefs in racial justice and equality, at ODU's MLK Day event at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 19, in Webb Center.

Sherrod was born in Baker County, Ga., on Nov. 20, 1947, to Grace and Hosea Miller. When she was 17, her father, a deacon at the local Baptist church, was shot to death by a white farmer, reportedly over a dispute about livestock. No charges were returned against the shooter by an all-white grand jury. The tragic murder had a profound impact on Sherrod's life and led to her decision to stay in the South to help bring about change.

She attended Fort Valley State College for two years before transferring to Albany State College, where she received a bachelor's degree. There she studied sociology, while also working for civil rights with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and met her future husband, the Rev. Charles Sherrod.

During the 1960s, Sherrod and her husband helped to form several land trusts in Southwest Georgia, in particular, New Communities Inc., a collective farm she co-founded in 1969. Located in Lee County, Ga., the 6,000-acre project was the largest tract of black-owned land in the United States. It was a laboratory and model for community land trusts, designed to provide an equitable and sustainable model of affordable housing and community development while providing African American farmers the opportunity to farm land securely and affordably.

The project soon encountered difficulties in the form of opposition by area white farmers, who accused participants of being communists, and also from segregationist Democratic Gov. Lester Maddox, who prevented development funds for the project from entering the state. A drought in the 1970s, fertilizer suppliers selling the Sherrods inferior products and their inability to get timely government loans led to the project's ultimate demise. Sherrod went on to work with the Federation of Southern Cooperatives to help black farmers keep their land.

She earned a master's degree in community development from Antioch University through the Rural Development Leadership Network. The individualized master's program allowed community activists in rural areas to continue their work for their local communities while earning a degree. She completed her master's work in 1989.

Sherrod later served on the board of the Rural Development Leadership Network. She resigned from the board after accepting a position with the USDA in 2009, as the Georgia state director of rural development. She was the first black person to hold that position.

ODU's Martin Luther King Jr. Day event is free and open to the public. For more information call 683-5759.

This article was posted on: January 19, 2011

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