How would members of the Obama administration have reacted to racist pressure from the Deep South in the early '60s? Would they have fired Justice Department civil rights monitors who antagonized hard-line segregationists?
For those of us with long memories, this is one of the key questions posed by the firing of Shirley Sherrod in a fit of official over-reaction to the shameful right-wing blogger Andrew Breitbart. It is true that the administration reversed course quickly after the true story was revealed, but that the Obama administration can be spooked so easily by Glenn Beck and FOX News raises a serious question: if they are so tough on national defense, drugs and crime, where is their resolve against the deceitful attack dogs of the right?
My introduction to virulent southern racism came in 1961 when I ventured to Albany, Georgia, first to write an article about the Deep South organizing done by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee [SNCC] and, second, to become a freedom rider on a train to Albany that December.
It was then I met, and came to admire, a brave young civil rights worker named Charles Sherrod, whom everyone in the movement simply called "Sherrod." Albany was a segregated town near Plains, Georgia, and the home of Hamilton Jordan who went on to become Jimmy Carter's chief of staff. Sherrod was the kind of front-line young militant who eventually brought about the New South of Carter, Bill Clinton and Al Gore, among others. Sherrod had to face violence, and the possibility of death, every day in his effort to mobilize young people and their parents against the suffocation of fear.
Sherrod, and his equally committed wife Shirley, made a conscious decision to stay in rural Georgia long after the voting rights laws were passed and the national media departed. I left Albany after my two brief and harrowing experiences in 1961, and never returned until I spoke at commemoration of the Albany civil rights movement a few years ago. The Sherrods were still there. She was engaged in programs supporting rural farmers, while he had served on the city council and was a minister in a nearby state prison. There were 500 people at the event, the stalwarts of the past.
So Shirley Sherrod's life cannot be reduced by a dishonest and amoral right-wing blogger into a few seconds of videotape 25 years old. She is one of many thousands who had the force of character to face racist abuse, and seemingly immovable state power, when they were demonized and disenfranchised. They were the trees standing by the water, and they would not be moved. They tried to bring their morality to politics, not accept the politics of Machiavelli.
Our leaders today could learn from this strength of long ago. In fairness, government officials and leaders of large organizations, who are beneficiaries of the Southern civil rights legacy, have institutional reputations to protect. They should avoid needlessly provoking the right, and have every right to pick their fights intelligently. But years of battering from the right have bred a defensive anxiety in the ranks of too many Democratic liberals. They flinch before they fight. It's almost as if they internalize the right-wing refrain that they are weak, tea-sipping elitists. They give far greater consideration to conservatives, militarists and bankers who rarely vote for them than to the millions of activists in social movements who actually made their power possible.
This is a moment when roots should be remembered, recovered from oblivion and venerated, not airbrushed out of history and polished resumes.