Shirley Sherrod Photo

Shirley Sherrod’s Case and the Power of the Personal Story

The case of Shirley Sherrod is starting to wind down, but the dialogue around race in America is as vibrant as ever. There is an important post at What About Our that names as Robert Gibbs put it, “people involved in this situation” that “acted without a complete set of facts.” While the article understandably goes for the NAACP’s jugular, it also diffuses the responsibility by holding Roland Martin and Dr. Boyce accountable for skewering a black grandmother without taking the entire tape into account.

While the African American men who acted in haste are one part of Sherrod’s story, a story that is being framed as one of  a heroine, this recent case also makes me a little nostalgic about another hero of mine: Malcolm X. Shirley Sherrod’s background is strikingly similar to the backstory of Malcolm X whose father, and several of his uncles, were also murdered at the hands of white men. The autobiography of Malcolm X written with Alex Haley from start to finish, is a detailed account of the anger and hatred that stemmed from the pain of Malcolm’s father’s death. But it also goes on to note the power of transformation as Malcolm broke from the Nation of Islam and pursued equality for all people.

My 10th grade sister tells me that in history classes this past year Malcolm’s story is barely mentioned and if he is brought up he is described as a foil to Martin Luther King. In all actuality, stories like Sherrod’s and Malcom’s are what this country needs to hear because these are the stories of changing oneself, even in the face of personal trauma that confirms the deepest suspicions one has about another race. At all levels of racism in America, from employment discrimination  to residential segregation, are the private decisions of everyday Americans. This means that the fight for racial justice is a fight to change people on a very personal level. If a racial summit is held by the White House, the personal stories of transformation according to Malcolm and Shirley can play a really useful role in bringing about the self-change that is necessary for social change.

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  • nazza

    Malcolm X is a hero of mine, too. And you’re right, the only thing that is emphasized are his inflammatory and vitriolic statements before he left the Nation of Islam and before he went on the hajj to Mecca. He left a very changed person. As we’ve talked about here before, it’s also notable that King is viewed primarily for his Civil Rights work, but not for his peace activism and Anti-Vietnam statements.

  • Bethany

    This is one reason I’m interested in reading more biographies by civil rights/activist leaders. Personal stories are important ways for me to understand people and why they believe what they do. I think the human element is important. For example, people who know lots of LGBT people are less likely to discriminate against them, because they can see them as real people instead of stereotypes that exist only on TV.

    This post also makes the good point that social change depends on the actions of individual people. Working together, but that recognition of desire for change and action to make change is needed before any change can occur.