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Obama official sacked and rehired in US race row sparked by video

By David Usborne

It began, like so many political brouhahas, with a video on a website — a clip from a speech by a black official of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) in which she mused on an incident from a quarter of a century ago, long before she joined the government. But in the space of a couple of news cycles, Shirley Sherrod's life story was rewritten — twice.

First she was branded an unreconstructed racist and sacked. Within barely 24 hours, however, she was offered a new job by the government, this time hailed as a symbol of racial reconciliation.

In the same blinks of the news cycle, the right saw a seeming propaganda coup transformed into an own-goal, the Agriculture Department was obliged to issue an apology, and the Obama White House had clumsily stumbled into a controversy on race — the very issue this President was supposedly uniquely placed to overcome.

On Monday morning, the conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart posted a two-and-a-half minute video extract of a speech made in March 2010 by Ms Sherrod, the Agriculture Department's (USDA) director of rural development for Georgia, in which she apparently admitted having discriminated against a white farmer.

Inevitably the controversy was seized upon by right-wing Fox News, which denounced the video and demanded her resignation.

That afternoon she was travelling when Cheryl Cook, a deputy undersecretary at the USDA called to inform her that the White House, no less, wanted her out, because her comments were causing a furore on the cable networks.

“They called me twice,” Ms Sherrod said. “They asked me to pull over to the side of the road and submit my resignation on my BlackBerry, and that's what I did.”

Even the NAACP, the venerable US civil rights group that organised the meeting at which she spoke, praised her ousting.

Alas, the clip, it emerged, was lifted entirely out of context from a 43-minute speech.

Far from venting reverse racist spleen against whites, Ms Sherrod (62) told how she was director of a non-profit group that helped black farmers, in an era when the USDA was notorious for its discrimination against blacks.

Yes, she admitted to her NAACP audience, she had had doubts when the white farmer and his wife approached her in 1986 for help. But help them she did.

In the event, she became friends with the farmers she saved from ruin. “If we hadn't found her we would have lost everything,” Roger Spooner, now 82, says. “She's al

ways been nice and polite and considerate,” adds his wife, Eloise. “She was just a good person.”

By this point in proceedings it was clear — even to right-wing diehards — that the original story didn't quite stand up.

By Wednesday Bill O'Reilly no less, that most pugnacious of Fox hosts, was apologising to Ms Sherrod “for not doing my homework”.

Tom Vilsack, the Agriculture Secretary, called with an apology, offering her another job at his department. The White House also ate humble pie.

With the exception of Mrs Sherrod and the Spooners, who resolutely confirmed what really happened, no-one emerges with credit. Not the American right, nor the USDA or the NAACP, which both bought the original story and acted without fully checking the facts.

“We were snookered,” Benjamin Jealous, the NAACP president, noted ruefully.

And certainly not the White House.

“This is a good woman, and she's been put through hell,” said Mr Vilsack, who is said to have |offered Ms Sherrod a post at the USDA focusing on civil rights.

But Ms Sherrod was dubious yesterday. “I'm not so sure that going back to the department is the right thing to do,” she told CNN. And who can blame her?

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