Joan Walsh: The Civil Rights Heroism of Charles Sherrod





[Joan Walsh is the editor-in-chief of Salon.]

People who care about civil rights and racial reconciliation may eventually thank Andrew Breitbart for bringing Shirley Sherrod the global attention she deserves. Really. Her message of racial healing, her insight that the forces of wealth and injustice have always pit "the haves and the have-nots" against each other, whatever their race, is exactly what's missing in today's Beltway debates about race. What's even more amazing, but almost completely unexplored in this controversy, is the historic civil rights leadership role of her husband, Charles Sherrod, an early leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, who served on the front lines of the nonviolent civil rights movement in the early 1960s.

Despite Breitbart's attempt to cast Shirley Sherrod as The, um, Man ("The Woman" doesn't have the same ring), out to keep oppressed white folk down, under our first black racist president, she turned out to be the opposite, an advocate of justice for everybody. Given that history, it's fascinating to learn more about her husband, an early SNCC leader known for being willing to work with white volunteers even after tension developed over the role of whites in the organization. Charles Sherrod is important for much more than the fairness with which he treated whites, but given Breitbart's attempt to make his wife the poster woman for black "racism," that footnote to his leadership history is particularly noteworthy. If there's anyone more clueless about our civil rights history than Breitbart, as well as more abusive to it, I'm challenged to think of who it might be. He tests my commitment to nonviolent social change, but I'll share the work of Charles Sherrod to remember my values.

Sherrod was SNCC's first field secretary, and he co-founded the Albany movement after a student sit-in at the local bus station (to test a recently enacted desegregation law) led to a years-long campaign that ultimately involved Martin Luther King Jr. and the intervention of President John F. Kennedy. He traveled to the historic (and almost all-white) 1964 Democratic National Convention, when the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party fought for more black representation. He was jailed several times and stayed with SNCC until 1966, when Stokely Carmichael became chair and whites were expelled, but he'd already become more focused on his work in southwest Georgia than SNCC politics. Sherrod got his doctor of divinity degree from New York's Union Theological Seminary, then returned to Albany to found the Southwest Georgia Independent Voters Project, then the agricultural cooperative New Communities Inc. He served 14 years on the Albany City Council, and he still lives there, known to civil rights movement veterans but obscure to the wider world, until his wife was attacked by the ignorant bullies of the right....

comments powered by Disqus
History News Network