Noted Civil Rights Activist Speaks on Overcoming Barriers to Farm Land Access

The Michigan State University Center for Regional Food Systems and the Detroit Food Policy Council hosted noted civil rights activist Shirley Sherrod to share her story Jan. 25 in Detroit.

Detroit Food Policy Council staff with Ms. Shirley Sherrod (left to right: Amy Kuras, Research and Policy Program Manager; Winona Bynum, Executive Director; Ms. Sherrod; Olivia Henry, Youth Coordinator; and Kibibi Blount-Dorn, Education and Engagement Program Manager)

By: Amy Kuras, Research and Policy Program Manager, Detroit Food Policy Council

The Michigan State University Center for Regional Food Systems (CRFS) and the Detroit Food Policy Council (DFPC) hosted noted civil rights activist Shirley Sherrod to share her story at a breakfast Jan. 25 in Detroit. Her story connected to the struggles marginalized populations still experience in Detroit – and across the country – with unequal access to land.

Sherrod is not only an esteemed civil rights leader, she is, in many ways, the vanguard for the issues that still swirl around us to this day. Equity, civil rights, “fake news”— Sherrod has prevailed through all of them, and continues the fight for a fairer world. Her story and life’s work are an inspiration and model to the movement for a more fair food system.

In many ways Sherrod’s story is completely different than that of contemporary urban growers. She grew up on a farm in 1950’s Georgia, a life she’d always planned to leave behind as an adult – until her father was murdered by a white farmer in a dispute over livestock when she was only 17. This tragedy led her to stay in her rural community and fight for equity for black farmers. She went on to Albany State College in Georgia, where she earned a degree in sociology, became active in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and met her husband, Minister Charles Sherrod. 

However, many of the issues faced by black farmers in Georgia decades ago echo the problems Detroit growers face. Throughout the 20th Century, black farmers were less likely than white farmers to get loans or USDA assistance. To help black farmers succeed despite these discriminatory practices, the Sherrods, along with other activists, established several Community Land Trusts throughout Georgia, including New Communities, Inc., a Community Land Trust that eventually purchased 6,000 acres in Lee County, Georgia.  They established a farming collective that served as a model for affordable housing and sustainable development, while providing secure and affordable land for black farmers.

In Detroit, land acquisition for urban agriculture has been a persistent and vexing issue. The Detroit Food Policy Council has held community forums bringing together growers large and small with representatives from the Detroit Land Bank Authority, which holds most of the vacant land in the city, as well as staff from the mayor’s office. These gatherings allow each side to share their positions on how land should be distributed to best revitalize the city. 

While the USDA has set polices in place specifically to overcome this discriminatory history, urban farmers are often shut out of loans and other programs that exist to support their rural counterparts. On a state and local level, the Detroit Food Policy Council has helped launch the Michigan Good Food Fund’s work in Detroit, which allows local residents access to financing that they might not otherwise have be able to obtain; further, as the convener of diverse groups working toward a fairer food system, DFPC has equity as a guiding principle for our work so that the discriminatory practices of the past cannot take root again.

Discriminatory practices, coupled with opposition from neighboring white farmers and a severe drought, led to New Communities, Inc. losing its land to foreclosure in 1985. Sherrod stayed in the fight for equity, working with the Federation of Southern Cooperatives to help black farmers keep their land. She also earned a master’s degree in Community Development from Antioch University through the Rural Development Leadership Network in 1989.

In 2009, Shirley Sherrod accepted the job which would place her in the national spotlight. She was named Georgia State Director of Rural Development for the US Department of Agriculture, the first black person to hold that post. The next year she was asked to resign after a website run by Andrew Breitbart selectively edited a speech she had given to make it look as though she had made offensive remarks. After the full version of tape came to light, the White House, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, and the NAACP apologized to her and the USDA offered her a new position, which she declined.

The same year the media maelstrom swirled around her, the Sherrods and New Communities, Inc. were notified they had won a $12 million settlement in a class action lawsuit brought by black farmers against the USDA. In 2011, New Communities, Inc. bought Cypress Ponds, a former planation, and are shaping it into a hub for black farmers.

In an uncertain time, Sherrod’s persistence, determination and dedication are a shining example of how to keep fighting even when advancing toward your goals seems hopeless – a practice Detroiters are intimately familiar with.  And now, her advice to those Detroiters was to keep going just like she had. “You have to work together, and never give up,” she said. 

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