Thursday, August 5, 2010

Statement from NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous on the Shirley Sherrod incident

The events of the past month have offered signs of great hope for our beloved Association to reinvigorate the national movement for civil rights and social justice as we move towards the fall elections.

They also provided me with a hard-earned reminder of how we must proceed together if we are going to maximize our chances for success.

Three weeks ago, I dedicated my address at our national convention to making the case for One Nation - a massive march on Washington for jobs, justice, and education on 10-2-10 - exactly one month before the national elections. This march will reunite the forces of progress (civil rights, human rights, labor, small business, faith-based, and student organizations), reinvigorate our troops at a critical moment in history, and add volume to our collective demand for massive job creation, good schools and just treatment for all.

In that address, I chose to challenge the national Tea Party leaders to stop explicitly racist extremists from gaining increased influence over our nation's political discourse through involvement in their rapidly growing movement. The comments were inspired by a resolution presented by members of our Missouri State Conference. They are, as I am, concerned that silence in the face of such extremism only allows the possibilities for hate and the violence it produces to grow. The resolution was passed unanimously by more than 2000 delegates.

Our challenge to Tea Party leaders provoked a series of public responses that were covered widely by the media. First, Tea Party leaders denied our claims were valid. Then they pushed out a false spin that we were calling the Tea Party itself racist. Then, because we were steadfast in the face of their resistance, Tea Party leaders launched an intensive internal conversation about racist elements in their ranks. Thanks to your overwhelming support for the call for civility and responsible stewardship of their movement, they expelled Mark Williams - a Tea Party leader who had a history of making racist remarks - and the faction he had helped lead (which is a good start).

Our call also provoked a wave of threats against volunteer NAACP leaders and staff members across the country. We counted more than 100 in total. In the midst of this wave, a young man was arrested in Florida for making terrorist threats against an NAACP unit, and another man was arrested after a shootout in California. He was dressed in body armor and reportedly on his way to shoot up our allies at the ACLU and the Tides Foundation.

Finally, it provoked a barrage of viral video attacks on the NAACP. Most of them failed to get any traction. One now-notorious video promoted by Andrew Breitbart and Fox News gained widespread media attention on several networks.

I made a critical mistake in assessing the content of that video excerpt, and issued a statement supporting USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack's decision to "accept the resignation of Mrs. Shirley Sherrod" for statements allegedly made at a local NAACP event and condemning the statements as portrayed.

As President Obama has said, Mrs. Sherrod did not deserve the rush to condemnation.

The mistake is one I deeply regret at a magnitude unparalleled in the 19 years since I took my first job working in the civil and human rights movement. I hurt Mrs. Sherrod and hurt her deeply, and I am very sorry.

I am also thankful that she has graciously accepted my apology, and that she has stated publicly that she continues to believe in the NAACP and the urgent need for our work.

We issued the original statement in the wee hours of the morning on Tuesday, July 20, attempting to head off a brewing media firestorm before the morning news shows.

Within hours of issuing that statement, we knew something was wrong.

By 9:00 a.m., that same day, we had removed the statement from our website and announced publicly that we were withdrawing it. We had also assembled a multi-departmental team to investigate the facts surrounding the incident.

By 11:00 a.m., we had contacted Mrs. Sherrod to inform her we were actively reassessing our statement.

By 4:00 p.m., we had tracked down the full video, and assembled staff and a national commentator on CNN to listen to the entire speech.

By 5:00 p.m., I was on the phone apologizing to Mrs. Sherrod and reviewing with her the statement we would issue moments later stating our error and urging the Administration to reinstate her.

By 7:00 p.m., that evening, we succeeded in uploading the full video of her remarks on our website for the world to see and to unequivocally set the record straight.

That evening I went on CNN and MSNBC to amplify our new statement.

I am grateful for how our national staff came together to address the error.

The beautiful and inspiring speech Mrs. Sherrod gave to our Coffee County, Georgia, Branch has now been viewed more than 500,000 times since being posted at Most notably, it was viewed by senior officials at the USDA and the White House as they deliberated and decided to make their apologies to Mrs. Sherrod and invite her to rejoin the senior ranks of the USDA.

As she graciously accepted my apology, Mrs. Sherrod asked that the NAACP redouble our efforts on Capitol Hill to ensure Black farmers receive the settlement they won after filing a lawsuit documenting the USDA's entrenched patterns of racial discrimination. I agreed readily. It is an issue in which our Washington Bureau Director Hilary Shelton and I have both been personally engaged.

A mistake of this sort will not happen again. In the future, no matter what the context, before making such a decision, there will be much more intensive investments in research and consultation on the front end.

The staff is currently in the process of debriefing and reviewing protocols to institutionalize this commitment. America counts on the NAACP to get it right the first time, and you should be able to count on your national office to be the standard bearer for our great Association.

In the meantime, what will not change is our commitment to confronting racism wherever it flourishes, and building powerful alliances to combat its most urgent structural manifestations.

We applaud Mrs. Sherrod's decision to sue Mr. Breitbart and will back her up on that suit. We will complement that effort and build upon the work we began with our nationwide protests against Fox News' parent company, NewsCorp, by advocating even more aggressively for them to reverse their pattern of exploiting and inflaming national racial and social tensions. (It should come as no surprise that the aforementioned gunman claims to be a loyal listener to Glenn Beck, or that the ACLU and the Tides Foundation are frequent targets of his on-air animus.)

Breitbart's attack on Mrs. Sherrod, on us and on the movement was just malicious. He said he attacked Mrs. Sherrod to destroy the NAACP. Let me say again that I made a grave mistake. What Breitbart did was calculated and deliberate, designed to divide and destroy.

But if those who seek to divide us think what was done in trying to damage a mighty and heroic black woman, damage the NAACP, and damage the movement will succeed, then they do not know that we live by a higher order.

What was meant for evil, God will turn to good. We will be made stronger, not weaker.

That's why we will stand with Shirley Sherrod, a hero to us all, in her lawsuit.

That's why we will continue on, release our report on racism in the Tea Party, and push all their factions to adhere to modern standards for inclusiveness and civility.

That's why we will mobilize and march on Washington on 10.2.10, and continue to build the movement to put schools before wars, and fighting massive joblessness for our neighbors above maintaining massive tax breaks for the nation's wealthiest 1 percent.

We must be as aggressive as parents fighting for their children's lives, or as individuals fighting for their own lives, because we are.

We must be as inclusive as our long-standing vision for the 21st Century, because it is here.

And we must be as vigilant in the fight against hate-based politics and racist threats and violence as our forebears, because as the NAACP we are committed to ensuring America moves ever forward, never backward.

As Mrs. Sherrod said in her now famous speech, "If we are going to rebuild our communities, if we are going to get with all of the problems we have in our communities, it will take all of us working together to solve them."

Thank you to everyone who has contacted me with advice, counsel, and encouragement in recent weeks. I have benefitted from it, and I am as committed to seizing this personal opportunity for growth as I am to maximizing our collective opportunity to lead America in a better direction.

It is an honor to serve as your national president.

I look forward to seeing you on 10-2-10 as we together take the fight to our foes, make our demands on Congress clear before the elections, and remind America that we and our allies are the present and growing majority and will not yield the battlefield willingly.

Yours in the struggle,

Benjamin Todd Jealous
President and CEO

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