Shirley Sherrod knows controversy. Her speech Sunday at a D.C. church shows that she isn’t going to let a very public misunderstanding of her keep her from speaking her mind.
"I have helped many, many, many white farmers since 1986 when I went through that transformation,” Sherrod told hundreds gathered at the Metropolitan AME Church in downtown Washington. "All of them won't stand up and tell you that I helped them. Many of them don't want to admit to the public that a black woman helped them."
Sherrod highlighted the man who did stand up. Roger Spooner was the farmer she was referring to in the controversial speech that was taken out of context. She told the crowd how Spooner and his family acted swiftly to make sure the media knew the full story.
In July, Sherrod resigned from her position as the USDA’s director of rural development in Georgia. She came under fire after excerpts she made at an NAACP Freedom Fund Banquet in March were posted by a conservative blogger. The comments made it appear as if she was discriminating against a white farmer instead of helping him.
“When Glenn Beck announced you were the subject of his show, that did it,” Sherrod said her supervisor told her at the time. “So not wanting to hurt President Barack Obama any further, I pulled over to the side of the road and typed out a letter of resignation and sent it in,” Sherrod said Sunday.
Federal officials and even President Obama later sent their apologies to Sherrod. So far, she’s turn down offers to return to government work.
"I just knew the administration would support me once they saw what my message was,” Sherrod said. “Most of them knew me and anyone who knew me, knew that while I said those words, I was trying to tell about my personal transformation."
Her speech this Sunday didn’t shy away from the July controversy, but instead used the drama a teaching tool.
"See my enemies didn't know that I had been through the storm, many, many times,” said Sherrod. “You can't work out there for the rights of others and not go through the storm."
Sherrod then took the congregation back to a tough time she endured while working for Civil Rights more than 40 years ago, alongside her husband, an established minister. The couple escaped an attack in which their home was set on fire.
"So, I had been through the fire (before),” said Sherrod. “That's what they didn't know at USDA."
Sherrod make it clear that her faith got her through the ordeal back then and this summer.
"It shouldn't be a surprise to you, to hear me say that on July 19, 2010 - a day in my life that enfolded for the whole country and much of the world - I was repeating verses from the 27th Psalm."
"People ask me, 'How could you be so calm?’ I didn't have any fear”, Sherrod said. "God let me go through all that and He brought me right on back to Him - these people didn't know that when they started messing with me."
After a big applause, she continued by giving credit to her former bosses in the federal government.
“I'm sure that if they had the opportunity to do it over again, they would take the chance they had the five days before - to do the investigation - so that they could stand up to the far right; to say this is wrong,” said Sherrod.
Sherrod also said she had a history of working with people of all races long before the farmers she spoke about. She talks about how she and her husband split from the SNCC after she says its leader, Stokley Carmichael, said, “all whites had to leave.”
Sherrod said they decided to start their own, more inclusive organization, the Southwest Georgia Project for Community Education that’s still around today.
"Even the administration, I guess didn't know any of that."
Despite diving into the past, Sherrod seemed intent on the future.
"Do the right thing and people will help you," said Sherrod. She says this advice she typically gives to young people can be applied to all.
"And what we have to do as black people,” Sherrod told the mostly African-American congregation. "We have to help each other; we cannot be satisfied when our people are suffering the way that they are”.
“We can not be satisfied just to make it on your own or just to have someone in your family make it,” Sherrod continued. “We have to reach out, reach back and help.” And one of her final remarks received numerous high-pitched cheers.
“You never know, you could be helping the second black President of the United States - and next time she might be a woman."