WASHINGTON — The White House came under harsh fire from both ends of the political spectrum Tuesday after the summary firing of a USDA worker over her racially tinged remarks at an NAACP convention.
The USDA official, Shirley Sherrod, said her remarks were selectively edited on a videotape that went viral Monday night after Fox News reported on it.
(See new video of Sherrod's remarks below.)
She also said no one in the administration gave her the opportunity to explain her remarks – in which she appeared to deny a farmer help because he was white – because the Obama administration was spooked that the incident would be covered on Glenn Beck’s program on Fox News.
In fact, the white farmer Sherrod supposedly discriminated against praised her efforts to help him in interviews on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, figures ranging from Beck to the NAACP slammed the Obama administration and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack for firing Sherrod without the most cursory investigation of the matter.
The tape and firing continued a political controversy that began last week when the NAACP passed a resolution condemning the tea party movement for racism. That drew fire from conservatives like Sarah Palin as well as African-American tea party-backed candidates across the country who complained the civil rights organization had manufactured a racial controversy.
On his program Tuesday Glenn Beck said Sherrod deserved an opportunity to tell her side of the story before being fired.
"They didn't watch the whole video?" Beck asked. "When was the last time the NAACP didn't give someone the benefit of the doubt right away who was African-American? Again I point out the Black Panthers. Now if she is just relating a story from 1986, to make a point about how her racial perceptions changed, this woman deserves her job back."
NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous said in a statement that the group was "snookered" into believing that USDA employee Shirley Sherrod expressed racist sentiments at a local NAACP meeting in Georgia earlier this year.
Jealous said conservative activist Andrew Breitbart, whose website posted video of Sherrod's remarks, deceived millions of people by releasing only partial clips. He said the full video makes clear that Sherrod was telling a story of racial unity.
Story continues below.
Sherrod, who until Tuesday was USDA's director of rural development in Georgia, said she was on the road Monday when USDA deputy undersecretary Cheryl Cook called her and told her the White House wanted her to resign.
"They called me twice," Sherrod told The Associated Press in an interview. "The last time they asked me to pull over the side of the road and submit my resignation on my Blackberry, and that's what I did."
A USDA spokesman would not comment on whether the White House was involved, but Vilsack issued a statement saying the agency has no tolerance for discrimination.
The controversy began Monday when the conservative website biggovernment.com posted a two-minute, 38-second video clip of Sherrod's remarks to a local NAACP banquet. It was then picked up by FoxNews.com and exploded to become the number 1 story on cable news shows Tuesday night.
In the video, Sherrod talks about the first time a white farmer came to her for help when she worked for a nonprofit rural farm aid group in 1986. She said he came in acting "superior" to her and that she debated how much help to give him.
"I was struggling with the fact that so many black people had lost their farmland and here I was faced with helping a white person save their land," she said.
Initially, she said, "I didn't give him the full force of what I could do" and only gave him enough help to keep his case progressing.
But, she said, his situation ultimately "opened my eyes" that helping farmers wasn't so much about race but was "about the poor versus those who have."
The video ends before her speech concludes. Sherrod said Tuesday the clip appears to intentionally misconstrue the message of the story, which is that the case taught her that whites are struggling just like blacks. She says she ultimately became close friends with the farmer and helped him for two years to save his farm.
"My point in telling that story is that working with him helped me to see that it wasn't just a black and white issue," she told The AP. "That's why I take the time to tell that story is to tell people we need to get beyond it and work together."
Sherrod, who became USDA's director of rural development in Georgia last year, said the administration showed a lack of backbone in its reaction.
Biggovernment.com, which gained fame after releasing video of workers for the community organizing group ACORN counseling actors posing as a pimp and prostitute, offered the video as evidence that the NAACP condones racism.
Breitbart told CNN today that releasing the video was "not about Shirley Sherrod. ... "This was about the NAACP attacking the tea party, and this is showing racism at an NAACP event," he said. "I did not ask for Shirley Sherrod to be fired." He also denied editing the video.
The national NAACP first responded by condemning Sherrod's comments and supporting USDA's handling of the matter.
"According to her remarks, she mistreated a white farmer in need of assistance because of his race," NAACP President Jealous said in a statement Monday night. "We are appalled by her actions, just as we are with abuses of power against farmers of color and female farmers."
After years of civil rights lawsuits against the agency, Vilsack said USDA has "been working hard through the past 18 months to reverse the checkered civil rights history at the department and take the issue of fairness and equality very seriously."
The white farmer she helped, Roger Spooner, credited her with helping save the family farm.
"I don't know what brought up the racist mess," he told CNN's Rick's List. "They just want to stir up some trouble, it sounds to me in my opinion."
Spooner's 82-year-old wife, Eloise, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that Sherrod "kept us out of bankruptcy."
"Her husband told her, 'You're spending more time with the Spooners than you are with me,' " Spooner told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "She took probably two or three trips with us to Albany just to help us out."
She said she called Sherrod — "a friend for life" — this morning. "She's very sad about it," Spooner said. "She told me she was so glad we talked. I just can't believe this is happening to her."
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