December 30, 2010
President Barack Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20500
Dear President Obama:
Aloha! As a former civil rights worker from your Makiki neighborhood in Honolulu, I am writing to nominate Charles and Shirley Sherrod for the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011. I am also writing on behalf of the thousands of people who have participated in or benefitted from the Southwest Georgia Project led by Sherrods. Next year we will be celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the Southwest Georgia Project from June 2 to 4, 2011 in the city of Albany, Georgia. We are inviting you to participate in the celebration and to present the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Charles and Shirley in Albany as a way of honoring their work and achievements.
Indeed, the presidential medal is aptly named because if any one word summarizes the continuous work of the Sherrods for social justice in Southwest Georgia, it is "Freedom." Through their civil rights work in helping to desegregate the city of Albany and the surrounding rural counties and to conduct voter registration drives, Charles and Shirley have brought freedom to both blacks and whites in this region. In an area where black people often disappeared and public lynching was a common occurrence, they have courageously risked their lives to stop the racial violence.
As one of the original founders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) Charles Sherrod came to Albany, Georgia in the Fall of 1961 to organize civil rights desegregation activities and voter registration. He was one of the leaders of the Albany Movement that led tumultuous protests and demonstrations to desegregate the city and public accommodations. From 1961 to 1963 more than two thousand people went to jail. While Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. came up with the slogan of "Jail, no bail" in 1958, it was Sherrod who put it into practice. After a federal court order ended the protest demonstrations in 1963, Charles began organizing in the rural counties.
The years 1964-1965 were pivotal ones in the lives of Charles and Shirley Sherrod. In March 1964 Shirley Miller's father, Hosea Miller or "Hosie," was murdered by a neighboring white farmer in a dispute over cattle. Even though there were eye witnesses, an all white grand jury did not indict the farmer for murder. It is assumed that this neighbor was also a member of the Ku Klux Klan because a Klan cross was later burned in the Miller's front yard. While she was planning to heard North after graduating from high school, away from the violence, brutality, and segregation of Southwest Georgia, her father's death at the age of 17 made Shirley Miller change her mind-to remain and to work for change and social justice. She joined SNCC in 1965.
In June of that year, Charles Sherrod was nearly beaten to death in Newton, the county seat of "Bad Baker" by a group of white men who came out of a hardware store with wooden axe handles. Shirley's Aunt Josey Miller, who was nearby, ran and threw her body over Charles. She was in effect saying, if you want to kill him, you will have to kill me first. Seeing her fierce determination, the men walked away.
After spending the summer recovering from the brutal beating, Charles returned to the Union Theological Seminary in New York City, the intellectual home of the famous theologians Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich, to complete the Master of Sacred Theology degree program that he enrolled in during the previous year. It was at Union that I first met Charles or "Sherrod" as everyone, even his wife, calls him. He was a persuasive influence and convinced a group of 25 divinity students from Union to join him in grassroots organizing in Southwest Georgia. As I recall, it was a violent and brutal place. I saw more blood spilled in 1966 than I have for the rest of my life. In September of that year, Charles Sherrod and Shirley Miller were married.
In 1967 under the leadership of Stokely Carmichael, SNCC officially kicked out all of the white civil rights workers. Charles and Shirley disagreed with this policy and resigned from SNCC because they always believed in interracial work.
As Charles has said, "I didn't leave SNCC, SNCC left me." By using interracial civil rights workers, the Sherrods wanted to show white Southerners that whites were equals, not superiors.
During the period of the late 1960's, Charles and Shirley Sherrod began moving the Southwest Georgia Project in a new direction, establishing the New Communities, Inc., a 6,000 acre farm cooperative, the largest black owned farm in the U.S. Some of my white Union classmates continued to work with Charles and Shirley in Southwest Georgia. Ed Feaver from Norman, Oklahoma worked with them for 20 years and Joe Pfister of Berkeley, California stayed for 10 years. The New Communities venture collapsed as a result of a severe drought in the 1970's and the refusal of the Department of Agriculture to give loans to black farmers to tide them over this crisis. However, during this period, the Department gave loans to white farmers. The Sherrods along with a group of black farmers sued the Department of Agriculture and recently won their suit.
In 1976 Charles Sherrod was elected to the Albany City Council as a city commissioner and served until 1990. He also served as acting vice-mayor of the city. Sherrod worked as a prison chaplain for 13 years. He is currently professor of history of the civil rights movement at Albany State University, a school that once banned him from its campus for recruiting college students into the civil rights movement. The Charles Sherrod Civil Rights Park was created by the city to honor his organizing work in the Albany Movement from 1961-1963 (where more than 2,000 people went to jail) and in the dangerous rural counties from 1963 on.
Shirley Miller Sherrod received her B.A. in Sociology from Albany State University and an M.A. in Community Development from Antioch University in Yellow Springs, Ohio. She also did graduate courses in Business Administration. Among her many awards, she was selected as a prestigious Kellogg Fellow for 3 years, attending conferences and seminars in the U.S. and in Africa. She is a long standing member of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc.
Shirley has devoted her professional life to rural development and advocacy in the south for the past 45 years. She led the Georgia Office of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund for 24 years. In this capacity she was responsible for development and implementation of the USDA sponsored Outreach and Technical Assistance for 12 years. She assisted farmers with debt restructuring, alternative crops, book keeping, marketing and farm management practices. She also assisted groups of farmers to organize into cooperatives.
Shirley served as the Georgia State leader for the Southern Rural Black Women's Initiative for Economic and Social Justice. This women's organization promoted the first human rights agenda in the U.S. aimed at eradicating historical race, class, cultural, religious, and gender barriers experienced by southern rural black women. In 2009 she was appointed as the USDA Georgia State Director for Rural Development by the Obama administration.
In mid July of 2010, Shirley Sherrod was involved in a highly public controversy with the Department of Agriculture when she was fired as a result of a three minute video excerpt from an hour long speech given to a NAACP chapter, which was made public by a right wing blogger, Andrew Breibart. This controversy and its aftermath has been well covered by the media.
All of us, who have worked with Charles and Shirley in the Southwest Georgia Project, strongly feel that they deserve the Presidential Medal of Freedom. We invite you to do this presentation at the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Southwest Georgia Project in Albany from June 2 to 4, 2011.
Lawrence H. Mamiya, Ph.D.
Paschall-Davis Professor of Religion and Africana Studies
For more information on the Freedom Movement in Southwest Georgia and the Sherrods, see:
Albany GA, Movement, 1961-1962 (CRMVets)
"Seditious Conspiracy" in Americus GA, 1963 (CRMVets)
Federal "Jury Tampering" Frameup in Albany GA, 1963 (CRMVets)
Integrating Americus High School (CRMVets)
Albany Civil Rights Institute
Albany, Americus, & SW Georgia Freedom Movements 1961-1964 (additional links)]