The tragic murder of Shirley Sherrod’s father when she was 17-years-old had a profound impact on her life. She was born in Baker County, Georgia, on November 20, 1947, to Grace and Hosea Miller. Her father, Hosie Miller, was a deacon at the local Baptist church. A white farmer shot him to death, reportedly over a dispute about livestock. No charges were returned against the shooter by an all-white grand jury. This was a turning point in her life and led her to feel that she should stay in the South to bring about change.
She attended Fort Valley State College beginning in September 1965. She was there for two years and then transferred to Albany State where she received her bachelor’s degree. There she studied sociology while also working for civil rights with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) where she met her future husband, Minister Charles Sherrod.
During the 1960s, Sherrod and her husband helped to form several land trusts in Southwest Georgia, in particular, New Communities Inc., a collective farm co-founded by Sherrod in 1969. Located in Lee County, Georgia, the 6,000-acre project was the largest tract of black-owned land in the United States. It was a laboratory and model for Community Land Trusts designed to provide an equitable and sustainable model of affordable housing and community development while providing African American farmers the opportunity to farm land securely and affordably. The project soon encountered difficulties in the opposition of area white farmers, who accused participants of being communists, and also from segregationist Democratic Governor Lester Maddox, who prevented development funds for the project from entering the state. A drought in the 1970s, fertilizer suppliers selling them inferior products, and their inability to get timely government loans led to the project’s ultimate demise. Sherrod went on to work with the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, to help black farmers keep their land.
Sherrod earned a master’s degree in Community Development from Antioch University through the Rural Development Leadership Network. The individualized master’s program allowed community activists in rural areas to continue their work for their local communities while earning their degree. The program required close coordination between the PhDs connected with Albany State and her professors at Antioch. She completed her master’s work in 1989.
Sherrod later served on the board of the Rural Development Leadership Network until she resigned from the board after accepting a position with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) in 2009, as the Georgia State Director of Rural Development. She was the first black person to hold that position.
In July 2010, Sherrod was forced to resign from her position after conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart posted video excerpts on his website of a Sherrod address at an NAACP event. According to Breitbart, her comments showed how a federally appointed executive racially discriminated against a white farmer. The video set off a storm of controversy and criticism of Sherrod. Subsequent events showed that the posted video was taken out of context and part of broader comments that conveyed a completely different meaning. The NAACP apologized for critical comments and her boss at the USDA also apologized while offering her another job, which she later declined.