I've always been a little iffy about the constitutional mandate about free speech — only because there are so many people out there who say some pretty stupid things that hurt a lot of other people. Of course, I am a newspaper columnist in my spare time, so there are probably plenty of people who read this and think I should go crawl under a rock and keep my views to myself, too.
But what Andrew Breitbart did when he posted his column and the out-of-context video of Shirley Sherrod speaking to the NAACP was so wrong on so many levels you have to wonder why he still has a job.
Sure, everyone from the top down screwed up on this. Everyone jumped the gun. She was asked to resign after the video made it to the Internet and people saw and heard what appeared to be her making racist comments, when in fact she was talking about her own story of racial conciliation after the murder of her father when she was 17 and the burning of a cross on her mother's lawn after that. The whole mess about the speech never would have happened had Breitbart not seen fit to help out the Tea Party by zeroing in on this woman and her remarks. And he claims he's not a racist? Hmmm.
And even when the entire speech was made available, some pundits still found ways to criticize her. Jeffrey Weiss from politicsdaily.com began a column by chastising Breitbart for his "digital stenography" method of bad journalism but then went on to call Sherrod's speech a "sermon," because "it would be familiar to anybody who has spent much time in many African-American churches."
After that generalization, he wrote, "Sherrod also describes an event that will surely make it into the Lifetime or Hallmark movie about her life: How her mother, now a widow, faces down an honest-to-God burning cross on her lawn. Goes out with a gun while other members of her community arrive to surround the bigots. But eventually allow them to leave in peace. (A powerful tale that, however, Sherrod did not witness because she was already away at college.)"
How could anyone be so condescending about a young woman losing her father to racially charged murder and a gang of racists burning a cross on her mother's yard? A Lifetime or Hallmark movie? What about a documentary that would teach young people what others before them had to endure in the way of violent bigotry? Does this man think Holocaust survivors should have their own reality television show? And so what if she was away at college when they burned the cross on her mother's yard? Just because she wasn't there to witness it doesn't mean that it's not a horrible thing that happened to the people she loved most. If you think I took Weiss' comments out of context, go to politicsdaily.com and read his entire column. And don't worry; at least he doesn't say that some of his best friends are black.
To me, the real story in all of this is a very positive one. If Breitbart hadn't drummed up all this nonsense I don't know that I would have ever heard of Shirley Sherrod. And what a cool woman she is. She did help those white farmers, Roger and Eloise Spooner, save their farm 24 years ago (the real topic of her speech that was taken out of context) and by doing so helped save herself from being so bitter about the horrible things that happened to her and her family. She carries a powerful message with her everywhere she goes, and she's not afraid to say that she has been wrong. Is she perfect? No. No one on the planet is. But she has a lot to teach others — the main things, especially in this case, being the value of patience. I'm even going to go back and read some more of Weiss' columns to see if the one on Sherrod was just him having a bad day. It happens to us all.
I hope Sherrod accepts the new position that the Department of Agriculture has offered her in its Office of Outreach, as long as it is a job in which she can be effective on a large scale and not just a mid-level peace offering. We need more people like her working for the greater good rather than tearing each other apart. Maybe she should go to work monitoring the Tennessee gubernatorial-race television commercials before one of the candidates comes right out and says he wants to build a wall around the state to keep others out. Maybe she could sit them down and teach them a thing or two.