July 22 (Bloomberg) -- President Barack Obama apologized to ousted U.S. Department of Agriculture official Shirley Sherrod today for her forced resignation, his spokesman said.
“He expressed his apologies for the events of the last several days,” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said. She accepted the apology and Obama thought her response was “very gracious,” Gibbs said.
Obama’s call follows one made to Sherrod yesterday by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who said he extended “my personal and profound apologies” for having demanded her resignation.
Vilsack said he took responsibility for turmoil caused when he asked her to resign without fully investigating the circumstances of an edited video clip of a speech she gave in March. He also extended a job offer to Sherrod, 62, who had been the agency’s director of rural development for Georgia.
The agriculture secretary “jumped the gun because we now live in this media culture where something goes up on YouTube or a blog and everybody scrambles,” Obama said in an interview with ABC News. “I’ve told my team and I told my agencies that we have to make sure that we’re focusing on doing the right thing instead of what looks to be politically necessary at that very moment.”
The controversy stemmed from a portion of a speech she gave at an NAACP banquet in March in Georgia. In it, she was telling an anecdote about having an initial meeting with a white farmer who had acted “superior to me,” and as a result she initially didn’t “give him the full force of what I could do” to help him.
That clip was highlighted July 19 by the website biggovernment.com and was posted on YouTube.com. The NAACP, the nation’s oldest civil rights organization, initially condemned her remarks, and Vilsack asked for her resignation that night.
The incident she was speaking about occurred in 1986 when she was working for a nonprofit agency, not the USDA. In the full version of her speech, she talks about how that experience caused her to realize that the issue was about the “haves and have nots” and not white versus black. She said she worked hard “calling everybody I could think of” to help the man save his farm, a statement corroborated by the farmer.
After viewing the full video and speaking to Sherrod and the white farmer she mentioned in her remarks, NAACP President and Chief Executive Officer Benjamin Todd Jealous said in a statement July 20 that he believes the organization was “snookered” by those who circulated the edited clip.
Posting of the video coincided with the NAACP’s call to leaders of the Tea Party movement to “repudiate those in their ranks who use racist language in their signs and speeches.”
Vilsack took responsibility for seeking Sherrod’s resignation.
“This was my decision and I made it in haste,” Vilsack said. “I asked for Shirley’s forgiveness, and she was gracious enough to extend it to me.”
Vilsack said he offered to rehire Sherrod at the USDA in a position that would use her “extraordinary” background to assist the agency as it tries to improve its record on race relations.
Sherrod said in an interview on ABC’s “Good Morning America” program today that she isn’t sure whether she’ll accept Vilsack’s offer.
“I would not want to be the one person in the agency that everyone is looking at to clear up discrimination in the Department of Agriculture,” Sherrod said.
Vilsack vowed to rectify the USDA’s history of discrimination claims when he took office last year, a priority he said contributed to the haste of his decision.
The White House in May added $1.15 billion to a fund meant to settle claims made under the Pigford v. Glickman discrimination lawsuit filed by black farmers against the Department of Agriculture alleging biased treatment in USDA programs. The House of Representatives has approved the funding, which the Senate may consider this week as part of its supplemental spending bill.
Sherrod has been a discrimination claimant against USDA, Vilsack said. According to the website of the Rural Development Leadership Network, a group based in New York that organizes the rural poor, Sherrod last year led a group that won a $13 million settlement as part of Pigford. She received $150,000.
John Boyd, president of the National Black Farmers Association, said the incident is an opportunity for Obama to take a “stronger look” at race relations.
“These things are going to continue to arise if we don’t have a real race dialogue in this country,” Boyd, who is in Washington today urging the Senate to pass the supplemental spending bill, said in an interview. “The Sherrod issue is a moment in our country where everyone can learn from this and not prejudge.”
Boyd said the Obama administration should have used its resources to look at the unedited footage. “Mistakes happen,” he said.
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