How unusual was it for a black man to be killed by a white man in the Deep South up through the mid-1960s with no one brought to justice. Way too common. We hear a lot about one particular killing in Mississippi -- the 1964 murder of a trio of civil rights activists that included two white college kids from up North -- but in reality dozens of black men were killed for taking a stand, for trying to vote or just on a whim. If you want to read something sobering, check out this letter from 2007 from the Southern Poverty Law Center, asking the FBI to investigate some 74 additional unsolved deaths from the era.
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.
The bad news is that the forces of racism and those who cower before it are alive and well. The good news is that both the Spooners, the poor white farmers that Ms. Sherrod helped, and Ms. Sherrod were able to reject that racism to find what connected them. The best news would be if the country would decisively cast off the legacy of Sheriff Screws, Sheriff Johnson, and all the racist evil they represent.