August 5, 2010

The Sherrods’ New Communities 1960s and 1970s Plantation

Filed under: Activism,Business Moves,Taxes & Government — Tom @ 4:12 pm

This post appeared at the Washington Examiner’s OpinionZone blog and was teased here at BizzyBlog on Tuesday.

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Readers who saw my original Examiner post about Shirley Sherrod know that she and husband Charles received $150,000 each for “pain and suffering” as part of “a thirteen million dollar settlement in the minority farmers law suit Pigford vs Vilsack.” Based on history presented by Ron Wilkins Monday at Counterpunch, it’s appropriate to ask: “Whose pain and suffering?”

It now seems that Mr. and Mrs. Sherrod inflicted quite a bit of pain and suffering on their own — and on some of the very people Mr. Sherrod described as “our own” in a speech earlier this year — at New Communities, Inc. NCI is described at the Rural Development Leadership Network’s web site as “the land trust that Shirley and Charles Sherrod established, with other black farm families in the 1960s.”

Wilkins, who says he is “a former organizer in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee” and is currently a professor at California State University in the Africana Studies Department, writes: “I know this story well, for I was one of those workers at NCI.”

Here is some of what Wilkins describes (internal link added by me):

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.

… What most of Mrs. Sherrod’s supporters are not aware of is the elitist and anti-black-labor role that she and fellow managers of New Communities Inc. (NCI) played. These individuals under-paid, mistreated and fired black laborers–many of them less than 16 years of age–in the same fields of southwest Georgia where their ancestors suffered under chattel slavery.

… (Shirley Sherrod) claimed that she “devoted her entire life to economic justice”. The mistreatment of black workers at NCI under the Sherrods is a matter of record that contradicts this claim.

… 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.

At Riehl World View, Dan Riehl has posted a graphic of a 1974 El Malcriado article about a strike by children farm workers at NCI. That article reveals that “Wages vary from 67¢ – $1.63 per hour, and management pays each worker whatever they please, according to personal preference.”

The last two paragraphs of that article read as follows:

Though 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.

“Scabs”? Oh my.

If Charles and Shirley Sherrod are the civil-rights crusaders they now claim to be and not still the brutal managers they appear to have been, they would be tracking down those who used to work at NCI and distributing their $13 million USDA settlement to them. After all, it was arguably won on the backs of exploited labor.

Larry Elder, whose latest column appeared last week before Wilkins’s revelations appeared, had no idea how right he was when he wrote: “Shirley Sherrod, Quit While You’re Ahead.”

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UPDATE, August 5: Context — the minimum wage in 1971 was $1.60 an hour. In 1972, it was $1.80. I know because that’s what I was paid at my summer jobs.

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