The Sherrods and the Charades

Paul Harvey

The last day or two, it's been hard to avoid the ugly story of the pseudo-"journalist" Andrew Breitbart's use of and/or manipulation of a bit of heavily doctored video relating a series of events from 25 years ago to slander Shirley Sherrod (he claims he "only" meant to slander the NAACP -- whatever).

Normally such a typically dishonest smear against an employee of the Department of Agriculture (and the Dept. of Agriculture administration's unfortunate haste to act in response to the falsely manufactured story) would not by itself initiate a post here at a blog dealing with very different matters. Except that Shirley Sherrod happens to be married to Charles Sherrod, a person of great interest to civil rights historians and religious history scholars alike.

Over at HNN (a precis of a piece from Salon), Joan Walsh properly calls attention to the career of Charles Sherrod. As a seminary student, he was deeply involved with the Albany project and matters of justice in Southwest Georgia more generally. He's not nearly as well known as some other figures of that time in the history of civil rights, but researching my book Freedom's Coming I was taken with his writings from that period of struggle, and particularly with the work of the Student Interracial Ministry, a group of students from Union Theological Seminary (maybe other places as well, I would have to look that up again) who served in some of the darker corners of the South. Update: see the comments section where Ralph Luker provides a bit more explanation of and firsthand account about the SIM program.

Of the Ministry and Sherrod, I wrote:

Working within the “ideological arm of the southern way of life” could lead only to complete frustration or total compliance. Impetus for change would have to come from the outside. The Student Interracial Ministry offered to free churches from their straitjacket. In this three–year retrospective, Sherrod reported some halting progress:

I have seen the church moving, surging and falling, struggling to breathe, eager to learn the truth; I have seen it in stinking jail cells packed with people, singing and sweating people, brought before the Pilates of this day; I have seen the church under the stars praying and singing in the ashes of a burned down church building, in the winter shivering under a tent in the open country, in a home where people cried together without speech but with a common understanding; I have seen the church in a pool room. I have seen with my eyes whites protecting blacks with their bodies and blacks bleeding to shield whites from whites. I have seen ministers lead their congregation from Sunday service to the City Hall to condemn the state. I have seen ministers with three grades of education put Ph.D.s to shame.

As you can see from Sherrod's work here, anti-white racism is a terrible problem affecting us today, and it's wonderful of Breitbart et al to stand up against that malignancy. More seriously, if this fiasco helps resurrect and bring to light the careers of folks like the Sherrods, perhaps at least some things can work together for good -- even faux stories broadcast for politically manipulative purposes.


Ralph Luker said…
Your and Joan Walsh's larger points are well-taken here, Paul, but she's misled you about Charles, NY's UTS, and the Student Interracial Ministry Program, on which a Chapel Hill history PhD candidate is doing a dissertation. It put white seminary students in black congregations in the South for the summer and black seminarians in white congregations in the South for the summer. SIMP was, indeed, largely launched by Union seminary students, but after its first year or so it welcomed students from all mainstream Protestant seminaries. As a seminarian at Methodist-related Drew University, I was in SIMP in the summer of 1962, serving at First Baptist Church, Colored [sic!], in Macon, GA; and my friend, Hank Elkins, a white seminarian at the Baptist seminary at Wake Forest, NC, served at MLK's Ebenezer Baptist Church. ML was leading demonstrations at Albany that summer and both Hank and I participated in them. I believe that Charles Sherrod was a student at Virginia Union University (perhaps its seminary) in Richmond when he went on that fateful freedom ride to Albany, GA, in 1961. He *was* somehow related to SIMP, but I think he was not yet a student at NY's UTS in the early 1960s. I think his seminary study was at Virginia Union at that point and he would certainly not have been welcome in any white congregation in Albany, GA, as assistant pastor for the summer. So, I don't think that he was a seminary student SIMP participant. He may more likely have been a host of SIMP appointments to serve under his direction in Albany; and he might in later years have completed seminary study at Union Theological Seminary in NYC.
Paul Harvey said…
Ralph: Thanks for this info., and I'd love to read that dissertation. Yes, SIM was aimed as you say, and Sherrod was not enrolled at UTS until later, 1966-67. But as I recall from my research he got involved with it while in SW Georgia with SNCC (pretty much in the way you describe at the end of this comment), and later while getting his Master's at Union he was heavily involved with it. HIs papers at the Amistad Research Center have a lot on all of this, but hopefully the dissertation you reference will tell the story in full. In the meantime, thanks for these corrections and reminiscences.
Anonymous said…
Viewed in its entirety, the video of Sharrod's talk is still damning. She advises the white farmer to visit a white lawyer "of his own kind." Imagine a white person saying this about a black person!
Anonymous said…
By the way, the video is not from 25 years ago. It's from March,2010...How can you criticize beacons of truth like Andrew Breitbart when you can't even get your own facts straight?
Anonymous said…
First Anonymous, the post describes a "video relating a series of events from 25 years ago," which is 100% accurate.
You seem to be a stickler for accuracy, so I know you'll want to take this opportunity to correct yourself.
Anonymous said…
It said "video from 25 years ago" when I read it!
M. Tobin said…
The writer referred to a "25 year-old video" when I first read it too. I'm glad somebody corrected it.
Paul Harvey said…
All: The original post here had some inadvertently clumsy wording (a product of late-night posting last night before I tried to edit); I was referring to long ago events in a video, but expressed it in a way that sounded like the video was from then, obviously not my intention. I edited the post this morning to clarify this particular point.

More importantly: the point of the post is Charles Sherrod, and the Sherrods relatively unknown history (even to some historians) in civil rights work. This other trivia is a distraction from grappling with this deep and important history, as well as the issues of religious history involved. So, comments on that point are invited.
Kirk Moll said…
I am so glad to see someone pointing out the great importance of the work of Charles Sherrod (and Shirley) during the civil rights movement of the late 1950s and 1960s. Sherrod was famous for his inclusive perspective - embracing the importance of black and white civil rights folks continuing to work together!

I can also clarify things concerning the Student Interracial Ministry. It was started in the Summer of 1960 by four students from Union Theological Seminary in NY, in combination with three black student pastors from the ITC seminary in Georgia. From 1961 on, it included student participants from a wide variety of protestant theological schools throughout the country. It started, as Mr. Luker explained, as a program to place white seminary students in black southern churches for the summer and black students in white churches (some in the South, most in the North).

In the later period of SIM, students began to participate in direct action civil rights work. The two main centers of this were the Southwest Georgia Project, headed by Charles Sherrod and the Delta Ministry in Mississippi, sponsored by the National Council of Churches.

Sherrod was an early SNCC leader and worked in civil rights work from his time in college and seminary in Virginia on. He paused from his full time work in Southwest Georgia to return to seminary for an addditional degree, this time to Union in NY. He attended Union for two years, from 1964 to 1966. At Union, he actively recruited dozens of (mostly white) Union students to come and spend a summer or year+ working with him in Southwest Georgia. Sherrod was the leader of the SIM students, and the whole project, not a student participant.

Well, that is a brief clarification. I'd be glad to share more about SIM - I too am writing a disseration related to SIM - I have conducted oral history interviews with a dozen participants and I'm writing about the role of racial attitude change in their SIM experience.

Kirk Moll, Penn State Harrisburg, Adult Education Doctoral Student.
Paul Harvey said…
Thanks for all the good information, kamoll -- it's been a while since I had been over that material, and you've nicely clarified some questions that arose here. Thanks for commenting.

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