2018 Leadership Award Winner Shirley Sherrod
Civil Rights Pioneer and Executive Director, Southwest Georgia ProjectDebbie Koenig
April 30, 2018
Honored for defending farmers and farmer equity as well as building farmer coops in the South.
Growing up on her family’s farm in Jim Crow-era Georgia, Shirley Sherrod had no intention of working in agriculture. “I wanted to live in the North,” she says. “I thought everyone in the North was free.” Her plans changed the night of March 25, 1965, when her father was murdered by a white farmer—who was never prosecuted. Sherrod, then in her senior year of high school, felt she had to do something. She couldn’t bring back her father, but she could use own her life to create change. Her decision to stay in the South led to a remarkable life as a champion of farmers.
By the late 1960s, Sherrod was active in the civil rights movement and was married to minister and civil rights activist Charles Sherrod. At the time, many black farmers in the South were working land that was owned by white people, and tenant farmers risked eviction if they participated in any activism. Inspired by kibbutzim in Israel, the Sherrods joined with other civil rights activists to establish New Communities, the first community land trust in the United States. With nearly 6,000 acres, it was one of the largest black-owned properties in the country.
Today, there are several hundred such land trusts, and the current iteration of New Communities owns 1,600 acres of land that once supported a plantation. “What a statement to our people—that this place could go from being owned by slave owners to being owned by descendants of slaves,” Sherrod says.
Sherrod made headlines in 2010 during her tenure in the Obama administration, serving as the first African-American Georgia State Director of Rural Development for the United States Department of Agriculture. When conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart misleadingly edited a video of one of Sherrod’s speeches to make her appear racist, she was forced to resign almost immediately. Although the full video exonerated her soon after, Sherrod declined to take another job in government.
Today Sherrod is the executive director of the Southwest Georgia Project for Community Education (SWGP), a non-profit organization she co-founded with her husband in the 1960s. SWGP is currently working to establish a facility where small farmers in a 20-county area can bring their produce to be processed and shipped to various markets, including school systems. “It’ll make such a difference here,” says Sherrod. “Most of the counties here have a really high poverty rate. But people still own land or have access to land. If we get this food hub running, people with small acreage could grow as well as those with larger acreage.”
Her willingness to stay and fight, to find ways to help those with less power, defines Sherrod’s career. “You work down here in rural areas and it’s not like being in a big city, where your work can get more attention. You have to fight every day to get whatever you can for the communities you’re working in,” Sherrod says. “I’ve tried to live true to the commitment I made on the 25th of March, 1965. There’s not a day that goes by that I do not think of my father.”
The 2018 James Beard Foundation Leadership Award recipients will be honored at a ceremony co-hosted by Hyatt on May 5 in Chicago. Learn more about all our 2018 Leadership Award winners.