Ms. Sherrod, who is the US Department of Agriculture's rural development director in Georgia, was forced to resign Monday when a four-month-old video surfaced online, spawning claims that she discriminated against a white farmer.
The video – an edited, 2-1/2 minute excerpt from the speech – was released by conservative web publisher Andrew Breitbart and appears to be part of an escalating feud between ideologues on the left and right, with each accusing the other of being racist.
Moreover, the hasty demand for Sherrod's resignation – Sherrod says she had to pull over to the side of the road Monday afternoon and tender her resignation via her BlackBerry – hints at the effects of what's become a protracted media war, where aggressive outlets find that their potshots can cause heads to roll.
The feud began in earnest last week when the NAACP accused the "tea party" of harboring racists within the movement. Shortly afterward, Mark Williams, the leader of a tea party group called the Tea Party Express, wrote a mock letter from NAACP head Ben Jealous to Abraham Lincoln that stated, in part, "Freedom means having to work for real, think for ourselves, and take consequences along with the rewards. That is just far too much to ask of us Colored People and we demand that it stop!"
The National Tea Party Federation banned Mr. Williams and his group because of the letter.
Now the Sherrod video is emerging as a counterpoint to the Williams letter. Some conservatives say the video proves lingering suspicions about the Obama administration: that it has been far more responsive to complaints by minorities – especially blacks – than those by whites.
White farmer defends Sherrod
The charge against Sherrod, however, has been rebuffed by the white farmer at the center of the controversy, Roger Spooner. Speaking on CNN, he said Sherrod "did her level best" to help him and credited her with saving his farm. Asked if Sherrod was a racist, he said: "Heck, no."
In interviews since her resignation, Sherrod has said that the video clip is taken out of context and that she was making a larger point about "getting beyond race."
"I went on to work with many more white farmers," she told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "The story helped me realize that race is not the issue, it's about the people who have, and the people who don't. When I speak to groups, I try to speak about getting beyond the issue of race."
Sherrod says she didn't fight the resignation demand because she felt it would be fruitless. So far, the entire video has not been released.
In the clip that has been released, Sherrod recounts a white farmer coming to her, asking for help to save his farm. "What he didn't know, while he was talking all that time trying to show me he was superior to me, was I was trying to decide just how much help I was going to give him … I didn't give him the full force of what I could do," she says. She ended up taking him to "one of his own kind" – a white lawyer – "who would take care of him," she adds before the video ends.
Justice Department under scrutiny
The video comes at a time when the Obama administration is facing scrutiny for its attitude toward minorities. The the US Civil Rights Commission recently questioned whether Department of Justice was enforcing its policies "in a race-neutral fashion."
The allegation arises from the Justice Department's decision to drop a voter-intimidation lawsuit against members of the New Black Panther Party who brought billy clubs to a Philadelphia poll in 2008. Former Justice Department attorney J. Christian Adams testified last week that Deputy Attorney General Julie Fernandes told him: "The Voting Section will never – or will not, at least while she is there – bring any more cases against blacks or other national minorities."
Skittishness over perceptions of unfair racial preferences in the Obama administration may have played a role in the rapid call for Sherrod's resignation, especially with Democrats facing a tough battle at the polls in November.
"We have been working hard through the past 18 months to reverse the checkered civil rights history at the department and take the issue of fairness and equality very seriously," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement.