July 21, 2010— -- White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs apologized to former USDA official Shirley Sherrod for her abrupt firing, followed quickly by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack who personally apologized to her and took full responsibility for her ouster.
"Members of this administration, members of the media, members of different political factions on both sides of this have all made determinations and judgment without a full set of facts," Gibbs said. "I think that is wholly and completely accurate. Without a doubt, Miss. Sherrod is owed an apology. I would certainly do so on behalf of this administration."
Gibbs said President Obama was informed of the case Tuesday, most likely in the morning.
Sherrod, who was watching Gibbs' press briefing on CNN's set, accepted the apology but said it was overdue.
"It makes me feel better. This should not have happened, it took too long but it makes me feel better," she said. "The apology finally came."
The Agriculture Department official, based in Georgia, grabbed national headlines after conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart posted a video clip of her from a March NAACP event talking about her dilemma in helping a white farmer 24 years ago.
Gibbs today reiterated multiple times that the decision to oust Sherrod was made by the USDA, and it was based on an "incomplete set of facts."
Vilsack stressed today that the decision to fire Sherrod was solely his and he acted in haste. He said he told her that he "regretted the circumstances" that led to her resignation and he should and could have done a better job.
"There was no pressure from the White House," Vilsack said in a press conference today. "This was my decision and it was a decision that I regret having made. ... I didn't take the time I should have. As a result a good woman has gone through a very difficult time."
Sherrod said she tried to tell USDA officials to listen to the entire tape, but they jumped to conclusions before doing so.
Vilsack today said he offered her a job having to do with various legal claims against the Agriculture Department by women and minority farmers who claim that they've been discriminated against through the USDA loan program. Noting that Sherrod has been a claimant against the Agriculture Department, Vilsack said she "has a unique set of skills trying to turn the page on our civil rights chapter which has been difficult."
Sherrod told him that she needed to talk it over with her family, Vilsack said.
Vilsack, who said Tuesday that "there is zero tolerance for discrimination" at his agency, flipped from his initial decision after the NAACP released the full video of Sherrod's remarks, which augmented her argument that her speech had been taken out of context and in fact she'd been preaching against racism.
Senior White House officials held a conference call with Vilsack Tuesday night to discuss the issue, leading the Agriculture Secretary to release a statement this morning saying he is "of course willing and will conduct a thorough review and consider additional facts to ensure to the American people we are providing services in a fair and equitable manner."
The 62-year-old said her first thought when the news went viral was what her grandchildren would think about the first black director of rural development for Georgia asked to resign by the first black president.
Sherrod told "Good Morning America's" George Stephanopoulos today that her comments were taken out of context and that she was using the story as an illustration of how she grew and learned to move beyond race.
"I used my life where I grew up in a segregated society to show how I could move beyond that," said Sherrod.
Sherrod, who worked at the USDA as the director of rural development for Georgia, said earlier today she's not sure if she will want to return to her former workplace.
"I don't know how I will be treated. I'm just not sure," she said on "GMA." "I'd have to be reassured on that."
Breitbart, the conservative guru who posted the video with the headline, "Video Proof: The NAACP Awards Racism -- 2010," said it was not meant to be an attack on Sherrod but rather a lesson to the NAACP that they use accusations of racism to stifle dissent.
"What this video clearly shows is a standard that Tea Party has not been held to, is that the NAACP shows people in the audience there applauding her when she discriminates against a white farmer. That was the point I was trying to make," Breitbart said on "GMA" today. "This was not about Shirley Sherrod. This was about the smears that have gone on against the Tea Party."
The NAACP and the Tea Party have been embroiled in a heated battle since last week, when the nation's largest civil rights group passed a resolution condemning what it called racist elements in the conservative movement, and urged its leaders to denounce racism.
Many Tea Party leaders such as Breitbart deny there are racial overtones in the movement, arguing that charges of racist remarks have never been proven.
Shirley Sherrod in National Spotlight Over Debate on Race
The video clip posted on Breitbart's conservative blog featured a clip of Sherrod speaking at a March NAACP awards ceremony describing "the first time I was faced with having to help a white farmer save his farm."
Sherrod described the farmer as "trying to show me he was superior to me... What he didn't know was while he was taking all that time trying to show me he was superior to me, was I was trying to decide how much help I was going to give him."
Sherrod continued, saying, "I was struggling with the fact that so many black people have lost their farmland and here I was faced with having to help a white person save their land. So I didn't give him the full force of what I could do. I did enough."
The video was cited as proof of Sherrod's racism -- since it seems to show a government employee saying she discriminated on the basis of race -- was seized by cable news outlets and on the internet.
Left out of the story's race throughout the media world, at least in its initial few laps, were the facts that the incident in question took place in 1986 when Sherrod worked for a non-profit, the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund.
Sherrod's larger argument was that her involvement with the white farmers in question -- Roger and Eloise Spooner from Iron City, Ga. -- made her realize a larger lesson.
As she said in a different part of the video splice, "it was revealed to me that it's about the poor versus those who have."
On Tuesday evening, the NAACP posted a more complete video of Sherrod's remarks, and the longer version supports her story. The fuller video shows her telling the story about how the white lawyer to whom she introduced Spooner did little to help him, with Spooner calling her to tell her "the lawyer wasn't doing anything."
So Sherrod helped him. "Working with him made me see that it's really about those who have versus those who don't," she said. "You know, and that they could be black, they could be white, they could be Hispanic. And it made me realize then that I needed to work to help poor people, those who don't have access the way others have." "
The shorter clip of Sherrod speaking at the NAACP banquet aired in the context of various racially-charged debates in the last year.
For decades, black farmers have said the USDA unfairly denied them loans or took much longer to process their loans. Earlier this year, the Obama administration agreed to a $1.25 billion settlement in a class-action lawsuit against the agency.
Vilsack today acknowledged the challenge of dealing with the multitude of lawsuits that have been brought against the USDA, saying that "trying to turn the page on our civil rights chapter... has been difficult."
Sherrod's story, she said, was to argue that race shouldn't matter.
"Up to that point, I felt they had all the advantages," Sherrod told ABC News Tuesday. "Until I started working with that farmer, I didn't think white farmers were treated like black farmers were treated by the agency... There are a few of them who get treated like black farmers. And they turned into saying that I'm a racist."
The farmer who Sherrod assisted, and his wife, have come out in support of Sherrod, saying she did not discriminate on the basis of race.
"It never, never crossed my mind," Roger Spooner told ABC News. "Never crossed my mind. Me and the wife, we never, we never, we never saw that at all. Absolutely. It's unbelievable."
Spooner said that without Sherrod, he would have lost the farm.
"If we had not found her, me and my wife -- we went checking here and yonder and everywhere -- if it hadn't been for her, we'd have lost. It was just a matter of a few months and we would have lost it."
The NAACP initially sided with Vilsack's argument but then flipped on the issue, saying in a statement late Tuesday that it was "snookered by Fox News and Tea Party Activist Andrew Breitbart into believing she had harmed white farmers because of racial bias."
"Having reviewed the full tape, spoken to Ms. Sherrod, and most importantly heard the testimony of the white farmers mentioned in this story, we now believe the organization that edited the documents did so with the intention of deceiving millions of Americans," NAACP president Ben Jealous said in a statement. "The fact is Ms. Sherrod did help the white farmers mentioned in her speech. They personally credit her with helping to save their family farm."
Racial sensitivities within the USDA are high, with lawsuits from black farmers, Hispanic farmers, and other groups alleging billions of dollars in unfairly denied USDA loans, rooted in racial discrimination.
Vilsack was originally scheduled to attend the National Rural Education Technology Summit today at the National Museum of the American Indian, but at the last minute his name was removed from the official attendees' list. Following his news conference, he met with members of the House Black Caucus.