Sherrod Stands Tall in Fight for Her Rights

Barrington M. Salmon | 9/26/2012, 12:06 p.m.

The farmer's willingness to defend her was the linchpin in her defense, Sherrod said.

But her story is much more than that one incident. She grew up in Baker County at a time when the conditions under which black people lived could best be described as deplorable. A deep, pervasive and arbitrary racism shadowed blacks with a randomness she said troubles her to this day. Her father owned about 175 acres of land and share-cropped it with other farmers.

Sheriff L. Warren Johnson, who chose to go by the name "Gator" ruled the county.

"He killed a lot of black people in his lifetime," said Sherrod. "Gator ruled. He had a speed trap and collected money from everyone who didn't have a Baker County tag. According to the Atlanta Journal Constitution, in the '60s, he collected about $150,000 a year. I went to segregated schools, worked on a farm and was living under these conditions. It was awful. I wanted to get away from there. As I picked cotton, I would talk to the sun and say, 'Just wait."'

Tragedy struck in 1965 when a white farmer murdered Sherrod's father, leaving behind a pregnant wife and five daughters.

"I had to do something. I could take up a gun and kill the man," she said. "That night, I made a commitment to stay in the South and work for change. She is married to noted Civil Rights activist Charles Sherrod, who was a field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee [SNCC] and with whom she has worked over the past several decades to blunt the spread of racism and discrimination.

As a high-ranking official in the U.S. Department of Agriculture [USDA], Sherrod fought to keep both black and white farmers on their land. She spoke of the racism that permeates the USDA and efforts by black farmers to combat this while also trying to fend off attempts by the agency to take their land.

Sherrod became an advocate for farmers.

"Because of how difficult it is for older black farmers, younger black men and women don't want to do it. I [got] the reputation for being able to go into those offices and making them do the right thing. You have to learn the regulations working in those offices," she said.

After these many years of standing at the forefront of the struggle against racism, Sherrod said there is much work to be done with regard to race relations.

"I had hoped that we would be far beyond where we are on the issue of race. We take two steps forward and three back. It seems that we can't deal with it openly without wounds being open. I hope we will [make progress] with these younger people. I know this will continue to be a problem for those who want to fight the Civil War again."