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Sherrod Story False

So said the U.S. Supreme Court.

By 7.26.10

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It isn't true.

Shirley Sherrod's story in her now famous speech about the lynching of a relative is not true. The veracity and credibility of the onetime Agriculture Department bureaucrat at the center of the explosive controversy between the NAACP and conservative media activist Andrew Breitbart is now directly under challenge. By nine Justices of the United States Supreme Court. All of them dead.

But first, it's important to say this.

After Shirley Sherrod's firing I wrote a column congratulating Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack for removing her -- based on a viewing of the now infamous edited Breitbart clip. I was wrong. I should have waited to see the entire video or read the transcript before writing a word. So my apologies to Ms. Sherrod.

The problem?

I have now done exactly what I should have done originally. So there's no mistake about "selective editing" of videos or speech transcripts, here is a link to the website of the NAACP, where they have made a point of posting the full video of Shirley Sherrod's speech. I have seen the entire speech as supplied by the NAACP. The now-famous speech runs just over 40 minutes. If you don't have the time, here is a link to the printed transcript of her speech supplied by a site called American Rhetoric Online Speech Bank. The transcript is taken in full from the video version of her speech, which American rhetoric also supplies. I have read the transcript as well.

Let's get to this.

In her speech, Ms. Sherrod says this:

I should tell you a little about Baker County. In case you don't know where it is, it's located less than 20 miles southwest of Albany. Now, there were two sheriffs from Baker County that -- whose names you probably never heard but I know in the case of one, the thing he did many, many years ago still affect us today. And that sheriff was Claude Screws. Claude Screws lynched a black man. And this was at the beginning of the 40s. And the strange thing back then was an all-white federal jury convicted him not of murder but of depriving Bobby Hall -- and I should say that Bobby Hall was a relative -- depriving him of his civil rights.

Plain as day, Ms. Sherrod says that Bobby Hall, a Sherrod relative, was lynched. As she puts it, describing the actions of the 1940s-era Sheriff Claude Screws: "Claude Screws lynched a black man."

This is not true. It did not happen. How do we know this?

The case, Screws vs. the U.S. Government, as she accurately says in the next two paragraphs, made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Which, with the agreement of all nine Justices of the day -- which is to say May 7, 1945 -- stated the facts of the killing of Bobby Hall this way:

The arrest was made late at night at Hall's home on a warrant charging Hall with theft of a tire. Hall, a young negro about thirty years of age, was handcuffed and taken by car to the courthouse. As Hall alighted from the car at the courthouse square, the three petitioners began beating him with their fists and with a solid-bar blackjack about eight inches long and weighing two pounds. They claimed Hall had reached for a gun and had used insulting language as he alighted from the car. But after Hall, still handcuffed, had been knocked to the ground, they continued to beat him from fifteen to thirty minutes until he was unconscious. Hall was then dragged feet first through the courthouse yard into the jail and thrown upon the floor, dying. An ambulance was called, and Hall was removed to a hospital, where he died within the hour and without regaining consciousness. There was evidence that Screws held a grudge against Hall, and had threatened to "get" him. 

The very first paragraph of the Supreme Court decision states:

1. Upon review of a judgment affirming the conviction, for violation of § 20 of the Criminal Code and conspiracy thereunto, of local law enforcement officers who arrested a negro citizen for a state offense and wrongfully beat him to death, the judgment is reversed with directions for a new trial.

In other words, the Supreme Court of the United States, with the basic facts of the case agreed to by all nine Justices in Screws vs. the U.S. Government, says not one word about Bobby Hall being lynched. Why? Because it never happened.

So why in the world would Ms. Sherrod say something like this? 

No idea. It's possible that Ms. Sherrod simply doesn't know the truth. As with any family, stories from generations past can get handed down and over time the truth gets rubbed away and fantasy or fiction replaces it, younger generations none the wiser. This event took place before Ms. Sherrod was born, so that is certainly possible.

It's also possible that she knew the truth and chose to embellish it, changing a brutal and fatal beating to a lynching. Anyone who has lived in the American South (as my family once did) and is familiar with American history knows well the dread behind stories of lynch mobs and the Klan. What difference is there between a savage murder by fist and blackjack -- and by dangling rope? Obviously, in the practical sense, none. But in the heyday -- a very long time -- of the Klan, there were frequent (and failed) attempts to pass federal anti-lynching laws. None to pass federal "anti-black jack" or "anti-fisticuffs" laws. Lynching had a peculiar, one is tempted to say grotesque, solitary status as part of the romantic image of the Klan, of the crazed racist. The image stirred by the image of the noosed rope in the hands of a racist lynch mob was, to say the least, frighteningly chilling. Did Ms. Sherrod deliberately concoct this story in search of a piece of that ugly romance to add "glamour" to a family story that is gut-wrenchingly horrendous already?

Again, I have no idea.

There is also a third possibility for what appears to be a straight-out fabrication. Having watched Ms. Sherrod's speech and read the transcript, I think it's abundantly clear that she is a liberal or progressive political activist.

She is clearly enamored of President Obama and the progressive ideas that once fueled the New Deal and is the rock upon which progressives would build their Utopia. Her fierce devotion to the idea that government programs are the source of all good is not to be missed, whether she is championing the idea of working in the federal government or the idea that a particular program where she doles out millions is a source of agricultural nirvana. Here's how you get an "automatic job" in the Agriculture Department she enthuses. Come to the Farm Service Agency. Or the Rural Development Agency. How about the Natural Resource and Conservation Agency. This line of thinking about government in general, here seen with a focus on agriculture, is the age-old progressive liberal view in giddy excitement mode.

She is far and away not the first to speak this way -- and we will come back to two notables in this area shortly. 

God bless America for her use of her freedom. Elections have consequences, and her side won. She had a right to hold the job. As she accurately says at one point, this kind of activism once upon a time in the not far-distance past would simply not have been possible. She herself would surely have been under threat of death for daring to speak at all about anything.

But much has been made of Andrew Breitbart's selectively edited tape -- with all manner of people using this as an opportunity to question his credibility. There is no proof -- none -- that Breitbart deliberately edited this tape to fashion the image of Ms. Sherrod as a government racist. Say again, not a shred of evidence. Whatever else, Mr. Breitbart is no fool. To know that chances were high an unedited version of this tape existed is what he is in the business of knowing. To think he would willfully put out a selectively edited tape -- knowing full well someone somewhere would surely appear to make him look like a lying idiot -- is idiocy on its face.

Be that as it may, that's the charge. And as the saying goes, if one lives by the sword, one can die by the sword. Having now insisted that the slightest deviation from the truth can only be deliberate falsehood that ruins credibility rather than a mistake, Sherrod's defenders are staring at the cold, hard text of a 65-year old Supreme Court case in which nine Supreme Court Justices, eight of them FDR appointees, have unanimously agreed to the facts in the Bobby Hall murder. Facts that make Sherrod appear, to put it mildly, prone to exaggeration if not worse.

Will Anderson Cooper of CNN, who angrily snapped of Breitbart that "we think the truth matters," be investigating this untruth of Sherrod's? Rick Sanchez of CNN asked of Ann Coulter: "Doesn't Breitbart deserve to lose his credibility for this? …What matters is he published this stuff. Something that turned out to be wrong." Ms. Sherrod stood up in front of the NAACP and said "something that turned out to be wrong." Will Sanchez ponder this if Sherrod gets her job back in the Obama Administration? Frank Rich at the New York Times, who blasted Fox News on Sunday for allowing Breitbart to be "hustling skewed partisan videos" (as opposed, I guess, to hustling skewed partisan newspapers), never even mentioned a word of Sherrod's considerable untruth. Not a word. MSNBC's Lawrence O'Donnell, according to his Media Matters friends, barked that "I think [Breitbart] has lost his standing to present videos to the country at any time." By the O'Donnell standards apparently Ms. Sherrod must now sit down and shut up. And speaking of Media Matters, Eric Hananoki chimed in that "The way to avoid another ACORN or Sherrod debacle is simple: Don't trust Andrew Breitbart." To which, of course, the obvious question is whether Media Matters or any of the rest of the media will and should ever again trust Shirley Sherrod after the debacle of her lynching untruth.

Again, I have no idea what Sherrod's motivation in saying something so factually untrue could be. Is she simply ignorant of the facts? A serial exaggerator who got caught? A political activist hard at work spinning for credibility? No idea. I simply know she said something --indeed made a big deal of it -- that is factually, provably untrue.

And her new liberal media buddies, predictably, are unwilling to call her on it.

There's more.

IN DISCUSSING the Screws case, Ms. Sherrod left out another considerable piece of fact.

Here are the remaining two paragraphs on the subject as she presented them.

So, in the opinion, when the justice wrote his opinion and justifying overturning the conviction, he said you had to prove that as the sheriff was murdering Bobby Hall he was thinking of depriving him of his civil rights. That's where the whole issue of proving intent came from and you heard it a lot. It was used a lot during the Civil Rights Movement. What you also heard a lot when Rodney King was beaten out in California. Y'all might remember that. They kept saying you had to prove intent -- and that came from Screws vs. the U.S. Government.

I'm told that case is studied by every law student. And usually when we have people coming into Southwest Georgia, and wanting to take some tours of -- of things where some events happened during the Civil Rights Movement, I usually take them to the courthouse in Newton to show where Bobby Hall's body was displayed.

What's left out here? We learn from Ms. Sherrod that the Screws verdict against Bobby Hall's killers was overturned. She mentions "the justice" (sic) "who wrote his opinion justifying overturning the conviction…" But what does she, tellingly, not say?

She never mentions, strangely, either the one-vote margin that overturned the conviction of Bobby Hall's killer by a 5-4 vote. Nor does she say exactly which Justices composed the 5 votes that overturned the conviction of Sheriff Claude Screws. Any one of whom, voting to keep the Screws conviction intact, would have provided some form of justice to the Sherrod family by reversing that Supreme Court 5-4 vote in the other direction.

Not once does Ms. Sherrod ever connect the presence of a New Deal Justice of the Supreme Court -- one of those five votes that rescued the racist Sheriff Screws -- to the Ku Klux Klan.

Nary a word from Ms. Sherrod about Hugo Black, the man who can easily be said to have rescued Bobby Hall's murderers. Much less is there a solitary thought from Sherrod about why Black was on the Supreme Court in the first place. 

Justice Hugo Black, you see, was two things. Like Ms. Sherrod he was a committed liberal activist, a progressive of the day. He was a staunch supporter of FDR's New Deal as the Senator from Alabama. But Hugo Black was also something else: a "Gold Passport" lifetime member of the Ku Klux Klan. Which is to say, a committed racist.

So let's start with what has been much requested.

Context.

Who was Hugo Black?

One of the finer books written on this subject recently was Bruce Bartlett's Wrong on Race: The Democratic Party's Buried Past.

Mr. Black joined the Ku Klux Klan on September 13, 1923. Bartlett, citing a Black biographer, writes this of the future Justice's Klan activities: Black was "marching in (Klan) parades, speaking at Klan meetings throughout Alabama, and wearing the Klan regalia, including hood and mask. Historian J. Mills Thornton says Black's involvement with the Klan was 'extensive and ardent.'"

Hugo Black was, of course, a lawyer. His law partner? That would be a man named Crampton Harris. Mr. Harris was the Klan "Cyclops" of the Birmingham Klavern. Does this weird term ring a recent bell? It should. "Exalted Cyclops" was the Klan post held in a later time in West Virginia -- by another prominent future Democratic Senator named Robert Byrd.

Back in the 1920s as is true today, a little bit of celebrity helps if you want to get elected to public office. Black's celebrity, as Bartlett details, came from defending the murderer of a Catholic priest. What prompted the murder? The defendant was enraged that the white priest had married the defendant's daughter to a Puerto Rican. Famous for playing to racist sentiments, (Black once asked of a witness in court: "Was he standing at the door where this n…woman came in?"), Black carefully asked his client in the murder case whether he knew his daughter's husband was a Puerto Rican. On cue, the client replied: "You can call him a Puerto Rican, but to me he's a n….r." 

And just like that, Hugo Black won his case, making himself both famous in Alabama and electable to the United States Senate. His campaign manager, by the way? That would be one James Esdale, Grand Dragon of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan.

On arriving in the Senate in 1926, six full years before Franklin Roosevelt came to town, Black, in the words of biographer Gerald T. Dunne, was "a New Dealer before the term was coined." Race and progressivism went hand in hand for Black, the first necessary to fuel the other. Just as Shirley Sherrod showed in her speech as she casually hurled a racial bomb on health care at Republicans ("Now, we endured eight years of the Bush's and we didn't do the stuff these Republicans are doing because you have a black President"), Black was a master at linking progressive politics with race. Just as Sherrod could sweetly deliver the message that opposition to health care was really about race "because you have a black President" so could Senator Black deliver a roundhouse punch connecting the dots between the progressive issues of the day and race. The Klan's candidate hesitated not a second before leading the fight for the minimum wage.

It was precisely this devotion to the New Deal that won Black his seat on the Supreme Court -- so that he would be there to protect it from the inevitable legal challenges.

LET'S GET BACK to Shirley Sherrod, and yes we will be returning to Justice Black.

Take a look at that paragraph in Sherrod's talk about the murder of her father.

It was 45 years ago today that my father's funeral was held. I was a young girl at the age of 17 when my father was murdered by a white man in Baker County. In Baker County, the murder of black people occurred periodically, and in every case the white men who murdered them were never punished. It was no different in my father's case. There were three witnesses to his murder, but the grand jury refused to indict the white man who murdered him.

Now think of what she's saying here.

Forty-five years ago was 1965. 

Who was the most powerful man in Georgia in 1965? A time when, as Ms. Sherrod says, "the murder of black people occurred periodically, and in every case the white men who murdered them were never punished."

That man would be one Richard Brevard Russell, Jr. Latecomers will ask: who was Richard Russell, Jr.?

Russell was the son of a Georgia State Supreme Court Chief Justice, as Bartlett reminds, the Russells a very prominent Georgia family. Elected to the state legislature in 1921 at the ripe age of 24, he quickly went on to be elected Speaker of the Georgia State House of Representatives, then, at 34, he became Governor of Georgia. One year after his election as governor he was elected to the United States Senate, where he remained the rest of his life. In 1965, Richard Russell was not only the most powerful man in Georgia. he was one of the most powerful men in Washington as the state's senior U.S. Senator.

One of the sources of that power was his Sherrod-like devotion to agriculture and the role of big government. Farm parity, rural electrification, soil conservation, government insured mortgages for farms, agricultural research -- you name it and Dick Russell was there to enthusiastically dole out federal funds for his agriculture projects.

And yet...

Why, you might ask, was it ever possible in 1965 for Shirley Sherrod and her beloved father to be living in an atmosphere where the horrifying reality was, as she says, "the murder of black people occurred periodically, and in every case the white men who murdered them were never punished."

If you were the most powerful man in Georgia, not to mention one of the most powerful men in the United States, why in the world would you ever not do something about this?

Russell himself supplied the answer Shirley Sherrod had to know already, in a private letter back in 1935:

As one who was born and reared in the atmosphere of the Old South, with six generations of my forebears now resting beneath Southern soil, I am willing to go as far and make a great sacrifice to preserve and insure white supremacy in the social, economic, and political life of our state as any man who lives within her borders.

With every breath he drew, Richard Russell was fiercely devoted to that sentiment. Lyndon Johnson biographer Robert Caro quotes Russell as saying:

Any southern white man worth a pinch of salt would give his all to maintain white supremacy. 

He had been a state legislator. The governor. For decades the United States Senator from Georgia. Just like Shirley Sherrod he had a passion for big government policies and shipping money and jobs to Georgia farmers. But there was just one teensy problem with Dick Russell. Just as Shirley Sherrod has dabbled in the mixed waters of using race to push big government programs, so too did Dick Russell. Yet his power for mischief was far greater than Shirley Sherrod's. He did everything he could to ensure that whether it was the brutal beating (not lynching) of Bobby Hall back in the 1940s, when he was already a young senator and ex-governor, or the murder of Shirley Sherrod's father in 1965, when he was the state's powerful senior Senator and in a real sense the boss of Georgia, that "white men who murdered" blacks, as Shirley has correctly noted, "were never punished."

Here's a suggestion.

The next time Ms. Sherrod visits Washington, she can take a trip up to Capitol Hill.

First, she can visit the Supreme Court of the United States, and ponder the connection between progressivism and racism. Take a look inside the ornate chamber where on May 7, 1945, Justice Hugo Black, a lifetime member of the Ku Klux Klan honored with a lifetime seat on the Supreme Court, an honor made possible because he used his racism to support the New Deal, voted to overturn the conviction of Sheriff Claude Screws for beating Bobby Hall to death.

Then a short stroll adown the street and she can visit another of Capitol Hill's enduring monuments: The Richard B. Russell United States Senate Office Building. As she strolls down its old marble corridors, surrounded by the offices of powerful United States Senators and their staffs, she perhaps can take the time to reflect once again on the night her father was murdered. And that the very building in which she walks is named in honor of the progressive/racist Democrat who was without doubt responsible for helping lots of Georgia farmers on a scale even Sherrod might not be able to imagine. But to do that he had to help create and nurture the atmosphere that made her father's death -- and that of Bobby Hall -- possible.

Perhaps, just perhaps, she'll even wonder if she understands just how much her own career and the things she said in that famous speech are sounding to some ears ever-so-slightly just like those of Justice Black and Senator Russell. Down the scale a bit -- a bureaucrat is not the same as a Senator or a Justice -- but still finding herself on the same scale nonetheless. A little concern for the poor folks here, a few government farm dollars and jobs over there and -- oh yes- a little dropping of the race card here and there so those jobs and dollars keep flowing.

Maybe she can even tell us why she stood up in front of the NAACP and said something that was completely, totally, untrue.

There is no reason in the world this episode cannot move race relations forward. Ms. Sherrod seems like a good person. But as with alcoholics and drug addicts, those addicted to the potent political cocktail of the progressive racism variety need somehow to be able to summon the guts to stand up and say the problem is not with Fox News or Andrew Breitbart or Tea Parties or anyone else.

Fox News and Andrew Breitbart are not the ones who killed Bobby Hall and then overturned his conviction.

Fox News and Andrew Breitbart are not the ones who killed Shirley Sherrod's father in 1965.

And Fox News and Andrew Breitbart are not the ones who went out of their way to honor Hugo Black and Richard Russell with a Supreme Court nomination and the naming of a Senate Office Building.

We know who did these things. And when Shirley Sherrod finally gets a minute's peace -- so should she. 

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About the Author
Jeffrey Lord is a former Reagan White House political director and author. He writes from Pennsylvania at jlpa1@aol.com.