USDA chief gets heat for Sherrod firing

Vilsack is under fire from the Congressional Black Caucus, the Federation of Southern Cooperatives and the Rural Coalition, among others.

The Congressional Black Caucus, the Federation of Southern Cooperatives and the Rural Coalition Wednesday called on Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to reinstate Shirley Sherrod, the Georgia rural development director who was forced to resign Tuesday amid controversy over remarks on race.

Sherrod has come under fire for comments she made at a March NAACP conference - which were taped and widely circulated - that critics have called racist. As a member of an anti-poverty group 20 years ago, Sherrod said, she denied a white farmer full assistance.

But in extended comments heard only in the full videotape, she said she later helped the farmer, and she used the example to underscore that her job was to help poor farmers regardless of race.

In a statement, CBC Chairwoman Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., and other caucus members said it was troubling that Sherrod was asked for her resignation "because of an edited video clip."

"A full review of the clip demonstrates Ms. Sherrod's personal transformation. She was clearly educating the public about the power of redemption. It is now apparent that Secretary Vilsack did not have all of the facts available to him and overreacted," the statement added.

"There are many individuals still serving in the Department of Agriculture who were responsible for years of discrimination against African American farmers," the statement said, referring to long-standing discrimination cases that are only now being settled.

Ralph Paige, executive director of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives and Land Assistance Fund, called on Vilsack to "quickly correct this injustice."

"We note with interest that your concern is to move forward to solve the problems that USDA has had in the past in terms of its sad record on civil rights," Paige said. "Yet your decision to fire one of the few persons in the country who could likely do the most to help achieve that goal stubbornly negates your stated interest of moving forward toward equal access and equality of opportunity at USDA with integrity."

"The inference that Shirley Sherrod is a racist is beyond comprehension," he added. "For you to make a decision without consideration of Shirley's long and impressive work in civil rights is uncalled for."

Paige also suggested that Vilsack use Sherrod as an "ambassador" to teach others around the country about race.

The Rural Coalition, which lobbies for low-income farmers and rural people of all races, said President Obama and Vilsack should apologize to Sherrod for the pressure they put on her to resign as well as reinstate her.

As a leader of a USDA community-based group, Sherrod had "passionately insisted that the injustices experienced by Hmong immigrant producers in Arkansas be addressed by USDA," the group added, arguing that her leadership had set the stage for Vilsack's civil rights initiative.

Meanwhile, National Association of Black Farmers President John Boyd Wednesday called on Congress to include the money for the settlement of the black farmers' discrimination case against USDA in the war supplemental bill.

Early Wednesday, Vilsack issued a statement to say he would review the situation. But Sherrod said on NBC's "Today" that she is not certain she wants her job back.

Vilsack has not returned a request for comment.

Billy House contributed to this report.