SNCC civil rights activist Charles Sherrod dies at 85

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Reverend Charles Sherrod, a frontline civil rights warrior who became the first field secretary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, braving beatings and death threats in the early 1960s while trying to desegregating a southern bastion of white supremacy, died Oct. 19, 2019. 11 at his home in Albany, Georgia, where he had worked for more than six decades. He was 85 years old.

His death was announced in a statement from his family, which did not cite a cause.

A founding member of SNCC, the main student group of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, Reverend Sherrod collaborated with prominent organizers including Ella Baker – who helped him repay his college loans – and the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., who joined him. for about eight months in Albany as part of a campaign to end racial segregation in the region, known for its police brutality, Ku Klux Klan violence and white-only voter rolls.

While King left Albany disappointed, believing the movement had failed to achieve any of its main goals, Reverend Sherrod stayed behind, campaigning for desegregation and voter registration at the helm of the community education project of the southwest Georgia. He then entered politics, serving as one of the first black city commissioners of Albany, and co-founding an agricultural collective called New Communities, often described as the largest black-owned farm in the nation and the first community land trust.

“Sherrod is an example of those people who didn’t quit the movement,” Clayborne Carson, a historian of the civil rights movement, said in a 2010 interview with the Salon news site. “They stayed, and they’re still fighting, to this day.”

Raised in Virginia by his maternal grandmother, who encouraged him to become a Baptist minister, Reverend Sherrod earned a master’s degree in sacred theology and quoted scriptures at rallies and marches. By the time he became SNCC’s first full-time field secretary in 1961, he had earned a reputation as a “country mystic, deeply religious with a stubborn streak”, according to the rights historian’s book. Civic Taylor Branch “Parting the Waters”. : American in the King Years 1954-63” (1988).

Although often warm and gentle, even soft-spoken, Reverend Sherrod could quickly turn into a fiery and confrontational organizer – as when he spoke with Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy in June 1961, joining other SNCC organizers in asking for help on behalf of the Freedom Riders.

Meeting with the Reverend Sherrod and several other activists in his office, Kennedy said they should stop worrying about the Runners, who were being jailed and attacked by white mobs as they rode buses across the South . Instead, they should focus on voter registration, he said.

Reverend Sherrod, then 24, burst into anger, advancing toward Kennedy until another activist pulled him back to his seat, according to Branch’s account. “You,” he said, “are a civil servant, sir.” It is not your responsibility before God or under the law to tell us how to honor our constitutional rights. It’s your job to protect us when we do. (Kennedy was unswayed by his argument.)

That fall, Reverend Sherrod was sent by SNCC to Albany, where he slowly began to win over members of the black community while teaching workshops on nonviolent resistance. “Albany was the kind of town where everyone knew their place,” he told the Washington Post decades later. “Black people were afraid to talk to me. Some were even so afraid that if I walked on one side of the street, they would go to the other side.

Working with fellow SNCC organizer Cordell Reagon, he began to gain their trust. In November, organizers sent nine college students to stage a sit-in at the local bus station, an action that helped launch the Albany movement as the campaign became known. King arrived in December, and over the next few months they staged song-filled protests, seeking to end legally sanctioned racial discrimination in the city and surrounding counties.

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The reaction from the white establishment was swift. Black churches were burned down in retaliation, and more than 1,000 African Americans were jailed, many by Albany police officers overseen by Chief Laurie Pritchett. The leader has maintained a peaceful image, seeking to avoid violent clashes and thus minimize media coverage of the protests. In private, he told the Reverend, “Sherrod, it’s just a matter of spirit rather than matter. I don’t mind and you don’t matter.

Reverend Sherrod witnessed several attacks by law enforcement and said he was nearly beaten to death in the nearby town of Newton, where he was attacked outside the courthouse by a group of young white men wielding ax handles. He was saved by an older woman who wrapped herself around him, using her body as a shield – a technique he had taught in his protest tactics workshops.

Over the months, arrests and attacks have taken their toll on activists. King announced an end to his protests in August 1962, later saying he had erred in protesting segregation as a whole rather than focusing on a single institution like the bus system.

Yet the protests in Albany were later credited with laying the groundwork for later civil rights protests, including in Birmingham, Ala. And for Reverend Sherrod, the movement was far from a defeat: segregation laws were taken off the books the following year. African Americans increasingly gained political power.

“They don’t talk about the unity we had. About the strength we first had,” he said in a 1985 interview for “Eyes on the Prize,” a television documentary about the movement. “They talk about failure. Where is the failure? Are we not integrated in all facets? Did we stop at some point? What stopped us? Did an injunction stop us? Did a white man stop us? Did a black man stop us?

“Nothing stopped us in Albany, Georgia. We showed the world.

Charles Sherrod wasn’t a big name, but his life has a lot to tell us about the civil rights movement

Charles Melvin Sherrod was born in rural Surry, Virginia on January 2, 1937. His mother was 14, so he and his younger siblings grew up with an extended family in nearby Petersburg, where his grand -maternal mother was a domestic servant and her mother found work in a tobacco factory, according to historian Ansley L. Quiros’ book “God With Us” (2018).

Reverend Sherrod studied sociology at Virginia Union University, a historically black school in Richmond, and stayed on to study theology after graduating in 1958. At that time, he was also involved in grassroots activism. civil rights, participating in a “kneel down” at a Whites-only church and a sit-in at a downtown restaurant.

In 1960, he traveled to Shaw University in North Carolina for a civil rights conference that led to the creation of SNCC. The following year, he joined other organizers to protest segregation in Rock Hill, South Carolina, where he was arrested and refused bail, serving 30 days of hard labor in a gang of the chain. It was there, he said in a 2011 interview for the Civil Rights History Project, that he prepared for future attacks, deciding that “nothing but death could stop me to accomplish the mission I had”.

Reverend Sherrod took a break from SNCC to study for his master’s degree at Union Theological Seminary in New York. He graduated in 1966 and left the civil rights organization around the same time, dismayed by the more militant stance the group was taking under new leader Stokely Carmichael, who moved to expel white members .

The same year he married Shirley Miller, who had turned to activism as a teenager after her father was shot and killed by a white man who was never charged. She joined Reverend Sherrod and several others in co-founding the New Communities farming group, buying a 5,735-acre farm and developing plans to make it a haven for displaced black families to live and work.

The project was modeled after cooperative farming communities in Israel, but never took off as planned. Major government funding arrived late or not at all, and the new communities lost property in 1985, following severe drought and the inability to secure emergency loans. The farm was seized and auctioned off, but the Reverend Sherrod and his wife won compensation in a class action lawsuit against the Department of Agriculture, which had discriminated against black farmers for decades.

With the proceeds, New Communities purchased a farm on the site of a former plantation near Albany, which is now home to a nonprofit organization named in honor of Reverend Sherrod.

His wife, Shirley Sherrod, was appointed state director of rural development at the Department of Agriculture in 2009, only to be forced to resign the following year after Conservative activist and blogger Andrew Breitbart posted a selectively edited video of a speech she gave, portraying her as a racist as the full video showed her speaking out against personal prejudice. Obama administration officials issued an apology to her a few days later and she was offered a new position in the department, which she declined.

In addition to his wife, of Albany, survivors include two children, Russia Sherrod of Albany and Kenyatta Sherrod of Marietta, Ga.; three brothers; a sister; and five grandchildren.

After his political career ended in the early 1990s, Reverend Sherrod had begun running an anti-drug program and working as a chaplain at Homerville State Prison. Most of the inmates were black, which he saw as part of the nation’s long heritage of racial discrimination.

“Racism is still the boss in this society,” he told the Post in 1996. “Segregation was one of them. It used to be that if you talked to 10 people, they would diagnose 10 issues plus segregation in our community. Now segregation is gone, but the other 10 problems remain.

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