Monday, August 9, 2010

Establishment Press Ignores Counterpunch Accusations That Sherrods Mistreated Workers at New Communities

By Tom Blumer

What follows was eminently predictable, but noting it is nonetheless necessary.

Shirley Sherrod, and to a lesser extent her husband Charles, were media celebrities for a while in late July. Readers might have noticed their near absence from establishment media news reports during the past seven days. It would be easy to think that this has occurred because the story played itself out, with nothing newsworthy to add.

That stopped being true on Monday, August 2, when a column by Ron Wilkins ("The Other Side of Shirley Sherrod") appeared in the leftist alternative publication Counterpunch.

Wilkins is currently a professor in the Department of Africana Studies (not misspelled) at Cal State University. He claims in the final sentence of his column that he is knowledgeable concerning what he is writing because "I was one of those workers at NCI." "NCI" is New Communities, Inc., described at a link as "the land trust that Shirley and Charles Sherrod established, with other black farm families in the 1960's."

Here's part of what Wilkins alleges (excerpted items are not in the same order as they originally appeared; out of order verbiage is identified):
Imagine farm workers doing back breaking labor in the sweltering sun, sprayed with pesticides and paid less than minimum wage. Imagine the United Farm Workers called in to defend these laborers against such exploitation by management. Now imagine that the farm workers are black children and adults and that the managers are Shirley Sherrod, her husband Rev. Charles Sherrod, and a host of others. But it’s no illusion; this is fact.

Shirley Sherrod was New Communities Inc. store manager during the 1970s. As such, Mrs. Sherrod was a key member of the NCI administrative team, which exploited and abused the workforce in the field. The 6,000 acre New Communities Inc. in Lee County promoted itself during the latter part of the 1960s and throughout the 70s as a land trust committed to improving the lives of the rural black poor. Underneath this facade, the young and old worked long hours with few breaks, the pay averaged sixty-seven cents an hour, fieldwork behind equipment spraying pesticides was commonplace and workers expressing dissatisfaction were fired without recourse.

Worker protest at New Communities eventually garnered some assistance from the United Farm Workers Union in nearby Florida in the person of one of its most formidable organizers, black State Director, the late Mack Lyons. ... Fearful of both UFW efforts to unionize NCI’s labor force and scrutiny by the Georgia State Wage and Hour Division, the Sherrods and NCI management hastily issued checks in varying amounts to strikers to makeup ostensibly for minimum wage differentials. It is bitter irony that the Sherrods have succeeded in being awarded $300,000 following a discrimination lawsuit, while ... impoverished NCI black laborers whom NCI exploited were never adequately compensated for their “pain and suffering."

(the following sentences appeared earlier in the column)

... Justice and integrity require at least as much accountability from Mrs. Sherrod to the poor black farm workers of NCI as to the white farmers she came to befriend. This lack of full disclosure of the whole truth is a “sin of omission” that trivializes the suffering of poor black farm workers and exacerbates the offenses of NCI.
This is hardly a right-wing hit piece. Wilkins's bio at the end of his column describes him as "a former organizer in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee," and further claims the following:
In 1974, under an assumed name, he hired-on at New Communities Inc. The Emergency Land Fund, an Atlanta-based black land retention organization, which shared oversight responsibility for NCI’s progress, wanted to know the basis for NCI’s continued poor performance. ... For his role in organizing NCI’s workers, management eventually fired him from his $40 per week position, evicted him from the rent-free shack on NCI property and orchestrated his arrest, on bogus charges, by FBI agents and Lee County, Georgia Sheriff’s deputies in the midst of an NCI labor protest. The charges were later dropped.
In his column, Wilkins refers to a report in El Macriado, which was then a monthly publication of the United Farm Workers. That report contains these two final paragraphs describing Charles Sherrod's attitude toward labor-management relations:
Though (the original reads "through" -- Ed.) several of the cooperative’s funding organization’s are pressuring Charles Sherrod, the farm’s manager, to reach a settlement with the strikers, he remains unwilling to negotiate.

With so few scabs left in New Community’s (sic) fields, the UFW first strike in the southeast area (outside of Florida) may bring the first of many UFW contracts to these fields that were once harvested by slave labor.
You read that right: "Scabs."

Despite the contemporaneous evidence that his allegations of serious labor mistreatment are credible, Wilkins's column has been ignored by the establishment press:
  • On August 4, two days after the Counterpunch item appeared, the Associated Press published two pieces apparently intended to be the last word on the main players in the Sherrod controversy -- one by Julie Pace ("AP Exclusive: USDA racial flap reconstructed") containing what AP claims is the backstory of the lead-up to Sherrod's firing, and another by Michael R. Blood ("Breitbart: Enemy of the left with a laptop") which portrays Andrew Breitbart, whose posting of a brief speech excerpt at his web site first brought Shirley Sherrod to the nation's attention (the web site actually posted the video first, as this July 15 tweet demonstrates). Neither AP article alludes to the Sherrods' alleged troubled labor history.
  • An advanced search on "Shirley Sherrod" (not in quotes) at the New York Times indicates that the latest related story was on August 1, the day before the Counterpunch item appeared. Searches at the Times's Media Decoder, The Caucus, and The Lede blogs on the "Shirley Sherrod" tag also have nothing.
  • A Washington Post search on "Shirley Sherrod" (in quotes) returns several items dated August 2 or later. But two of them are the AP items already noted, and the others don't refer to the Sherrods' alleged inhumane labor practices during the 1960s and early 1970s.
  • An August 4 Tribune Media item originating from Albany, Georgia by Kathleen Hennessey (Hard feelings about handling of Shirley Sherrod have deep roots in Georgia) and carried at the Los Angeles Times contains several direct quotes from residents. Even though she was almost literally in the neighborhood, there is no evidence that Hennessey attempted to follow up on the allegations contained in the Counterpunch item that had been out for two days.
It is not reasonable to believe that the establishment press is not aware of the story by this time. A Google Web search on ["Ron Wilkins" "Shirley Sherrod"] (typed as indicated between brackets) for the past seven days returns about 180 items (it says almost 600, but it's really "only" about 180). No cocoon of ignorance is that tight.

It's more reasonable to believe that the establishment press is not interested in letting Wilkins's charges get out to the majority of the population that isn't paying close attention, lest it damage the current "Shirley good, Breitbart bad" meme.

Cross-posted at

—Tom Blumer is president of a training and development company in Mason, Ohio