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Who is Shirley Sherrod?

Aired July 24, 2010 - 19:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


DON LEMON, CNN ANCHOR: Good evening, everyone. I'm Don Lemon.

Our special report on who is Shirley Sherrod will start in about 90 seconds -- but, first, there's a whole lot happening this Saturday, we'll catch you up on the news.

We begin with breaking news and this time it is out of Afghanistan. Two American soldiers are missing and intelligence sources are telling CNN they were abducted. NATO forces are mounting a search right now. And Afghan intelligence source says the missing troops were captured by militants in Logar province. This comes on top of news that five more U.S. troops have been killed in Afghanistan.

And we begin with breaking news out of eastern Iowa as well, where a dam break there, forced the evacuation of nearby residents in a matter of really minutes. It all just came down. The Lake Delhi dam failed as a result of excessive rain. Massive amounts of water quickly flooded homes and businesses in the town of Hopkinton, just north of Cedar Rapids. The National Guard has been activated to help there.

And severe weather brings parts of Chicago to a standstill. Up to a half foot of rain has fallen and tens of thousands are still without power tonight. The once Tropical Storm Bonnie is now nothing more than an area of low pressure. About a dozen ships working on the BP oil disaster are expected back on the site tomorrow. Officials say the storm set them back about a week, their efforts are to permanently seal that well.

And monitoring here a developing situation, it is in North Korea. Pyongyang is threatening the use of nuclear deference if the U.S. and South Korea go ahead with the joint military exercises, which are expected to start in the next few hours. So far, there has been no troop movement in the north. Make sure you stay with CNN for the latest on these developing stories.

Shirley Sherrod, right now, is mulling over a new job offer from the Obama administration. It is a consolation of sorts for the shabby way that she was treated this week after a right-wing blogger unfairly portrayed her at racist against whites. Well, nothing could be further from the truth.

All the same, she was forced out of her job with the Agriculture Department. Then, as the facts came out, an embarrassed White House had to issue an apology to Sherrod. Well, for the next half hour, you're going to meet a humble and remarkable woman who did everything right but still, fell victim to a vicious smear. I spent the day with her to find out who is Shirley Sherrod? Afterwards, we'll have a panel discussion on what her experience shows about race in America.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TV ANCHOR: Shirley Sherrod was accused of racism.

JOHN KING, "JOHN KING, USA" HOST: Did you reach out to her and say, what incident you're talking about? When did this happened?

TONY HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: Did you discriminate --

BILL O'REILLY, FOX NEWS: Shirley Sherrod caught on tape saying something very disturbing.

SHIRLEY SHERROD, FMR. USDA OFFICIAL: I told them, "Get the whole tape and look at the whole tape."

ANDERSON COOPER, "AC 360" HOST: We begin tonight with the smearing of Shirley Sherrod.

ANDREW BREITBART, BIGGOVERNMENT.COM: This is showing racism at an NAACP event.

SHERROD: He didn't care who he destroyed.

O'REILLY: Ms. Sherrod must resign immediately.

SHERROD: No one wanted to hear the truth.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't know what brought up the racist mess.

TOM VILSACK, AGRICULTURE SECRETARY: This is a good woman. She's been put through hell.

LEMON (voice-over): At the center of this fury and frenzy --

WHOOPI GOLDBERG, "THE VIEW" CO-HOST: Please welcome, Shirley Sherrod.

(CHEERING)

LEMON: Shirley Sherrod, an unassuming woman from rural Georgia. Now, a household name.

O'REILLY: Shirley Sherrod.

HARRIS: Shirley Sherrod.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Shirley Sherrod.

LEMON: Burning up the airwaves --

HARRIS: Racial controversy.

LEMON: -- thrust into a political firestorm. HARRIS: Was there ever a discrimination claim filed against you?

SHERROD: Never.

LEMON: Turning up the heat on the White House.

ROBERT GIBBS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: And on behalf of the administration, I offer our apologies.

LEMON: All this attention couldn't be farther from Sherrod's humble roots -- roots, though, that grounded her in the dangerous, even deadly world of racial tensions.

Newton, Georgia, the Deep South, 180 miles south of Atlanta -- a typical southern farming town.

SHERROD: You had to get up before daylight and get food and try to be in the field as the sun was coming up.

LEMON: Walking down the streets near her hometown, Sherrod remembers working in the cotton fields as a young child.

SHERROD: You had a sack, you know, that you put on and the sack went over this shoulder. You know, and the opening was here. So you are bending over picking cotton and putting it in the sack. And when it gets full, you got to take it over to a burlap sheet and pour it in there and you did that all the day long.

LEMON: Shirley Sherrod's family has lived in this area since the 1800s. All farmers, share croppers, who over the years bought more and more of the land they worked. She grew up in a small house with her father, Jose Miller, her mother, Grace, and her five younger sisters. Sandra, one of them, recalls how her father, always wanted a boy.

SANDRA MILLER JONES, SHIRLEY'S SISTER: He called us boy's names. Shirley was Bill. My sister next to Shirley was Gus. I was Sam Cook and they still call me Sam. And then my sister next to me was blue because she has blue/green eyes and my baby sister was Betty because she was the runt of the group. In a way, he would talk to us at the dinner table and he would always say: find yourselves. And don't ever forget, help everybody you can.

GRACE MILLER, SHIRLEY'S MOTHER: My husband always believed in feeding kids. Our home was the center for everybody's child to come in and have joy.

LEMON: But the chores were not easy.

SHERROD: We had to pump water early on because we didn't have any electric well. And we had to pump water now, not just for us, the cows had to have water, the hogs had to have water, the chickens had to have water. So, you know, you're pumping water for everyone. We were so happy when we got an electric pump. We no longer had to pump water.

LEMON (on camera): So, that was your upbringing.

SHERROD: Yes. And church. Oh, don't forget church. Every time the church doors opened, we were there.

LEMON (voice-over): Sherrod's father was a deacon. She believes it was that devotion that got their family through tough times.

SHERROD: "The Lord Will Make a Way Somehow." My mother used to sing it around the house all of the time.

(MUSIC)

SHERROD: You'd hear her singing that. I think I know why now she would sing it because times were so hard and she would always sing that song, "The Lord Will Make a Way Somehow."

LEMON: The farming was hard. Being black, even harder. The 1960s, Jim Crow laws divided the South and the races.

(on camera): Growing up in a segregated South for people that don't know about it, what was that like?

SHERROD: We would always get the hand-many-downs from the white schools. They will get the new buses. We will get the used buses. They will get the new books. We will get their books that had pages torn out of them.

MILLER: They couldn't even drink water at the water fountain. They had to go to the colored side and they had to go to the bathroom where it was filthy. If they went to the restroom to get a sandwich, you had to go to the back window and they would hand you a sandwich out of the back window. It was rough.

LEMON (voice-over): And dangerous.

MILLER: We knew where to go, where not to go. And if you did, you knew what would happen to you. It was dangerous even on the highway, riding along, because those -- they had deputies that would stop people and beat up folks.

LEMON: Sherrod remembers that sheriff.

SHERROD: He loved being called a "gator." And he could do -- I don't know -- I never heard an alligator make a sound myself. But the sound an alligator makes is the sound he would make and it was supposed to scare you to death.

During the civil rights movement in Baker County, he had a sign up at his service station saying "We want white people business only." Yes, I grew up knowing we were powerless.

LEMON: Yet, at an early age, Shirley witnessed blacks fighting for power. It was the fall of 1961. She was just 14.

TV ANCHOR: Albany, Georgia, a Negro fight against segregation is led by the Reverend Martin Luther King. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR., CIVIL RIGHTS LEADER: And if necessary, we must be willing to fill up the jails all over the state of Georgia.

(APPLAUSE)

LEMON: Civil rights leaders descended on nearby Albany, Georgia, fighting for desegregation through nonviolent protest meetings and marches.

It was called the Albany Movement and it lasted nearly a year. More than 1,000 protesters ended up in jail. It was unsuccessful, yet it made an impression on young Shirley.

(on camera): You were 14 years old.

SHERROD: We were supportive of the Albany Movement. We were raising money to support the Albany Movement.

LEMON (voice-over): It was a tough time to live, and even tougher time to grow up.

SHERROD: I didn't want to live in the South. I planned to get out of the South forever.

LEMON (on camera): You wanted to leave?

SHERROD: Yes.

LEMON (voice-over): But that all changed, one spring day in 1965.

SHERROD: They called me to the principal's office. I was such a good girl. Good student, I couldn't figure out why they were calling me to the office. But I went and they told me first, that he had been shot.

LEMON: The murder that changed Shirley Sherrod's life forever -- when we come back.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

LEMON (voice-over): As a young girl, Shirley Sherrod, she was Shirley Miller then, dreamed of getting out of the Deep South.

SHERROD: We had these big plans for me. I was trying to look at going to school in the north. You know, back then, they said a woman would find a husband at college, you know? I thought, OK, I'm not going to risk even going to college in the South because I don't want no husband from the South. I want to go north.

LEMON: Meanwhile, her father was on the verge of fulfilling one of his dreams. With five daughters, his wife was pregnant again. And he was sure this would be a boy. MILLER: He had a room -- the room back there was blue. He said, "This is going to be for my boy." And he had planned -- he told me, he said, when we go pick the baby up out of the hospital, I'm going to get you a brand new car and bring my baby home in a car.

LEMON (on camera): But the family's dreams were about to shatter. In 1965, in this field, Shirley's father and a white neighbor reportedly butted heads -- a dispute over who owned which cattle. Shirley says witnesses saw the confrontation.

SHERROD: According to the others, my father told him, we don't have to continue arguing. We'll just go to court. And he was walking to his truck to leave. He turned around to say something and the man shot him right up here.

LEMON (voice-over): Shirley, at school, was called to the principal's office.

SHERROD: They brought me in to tell me first because I'm the oldest. And then they sent for my four sisters. And we were all there in the office just crying. We didn't know whether he was dead or alive.

SANDRA MILLER JONES, SHIRLEY'S SISTER: That was our hero. That was our dad. And we had a teacher that took us to the hospital. And to see daddy lying out on a bed like that, it was -- it was horrible. I mean --

LEMON: As for prosecuting the suspect --

SHERROD: He was never, ever prosecuted. The white grand jury in Baker County refused to indict him.

LEMON (on camera): Did it make you hate white people?

SHERROD: You know, initially, I wanted to hate white people. I wanted to hate -- I wanted to get back at every white person. Now, my initial thoughts that night was I need to go pick up a gun and go find him. But I knew I couldn't do that because it just wasn't me.

LEMON (voice-over): Everything had been turned upside down. And Shirley's cherished plan to head north suddenly seemed uncertain.

SHERROD: There was a full moon. And I sat there praying and asking God, to please, give me an answer. I have to do something. I need to do something.

LEMON (on camera): When you prayed to that God on that full moon, what happened?

SHERROD: It was almost like he spoke to me in my mind. I didn't hear anyone talking, but what came to me was: you can give up your dream of living in the north. You can stay in the south and devote your life for working for change. And I remember a calmness came over me because I have a game plan.

LEMON (voice-over): After graduating from high school, Shirley enrolled in a local college for black students. Her younger sisters integrated the all-white high school and faced a terrifying backlash.

MILLER JONES: I was doing home work and I heard all these cars coming down the road, where being way out here in the back woods in the country, that's unusual. When I looked out the window, I saw this cross. And it was burning, so I went to wake my mother.

MILLER: And I was in the bed. And she called me and she said, "Mother, get up there. There's a cross burning out here in the front of the house." I said, "What?" She said, "A cross."

MILLER JONES: Well, my mother was not afraid. She had children there, young children. My brother just born. Of course, she went to get the gun.

MILLER: My second daughter (ph) was here and I said, get on the telephone and start calling some people.

MILLER JONES: They came immediately. And they put their cars in front of our house in a line and they started shooting.

MILLER: And I went to the door and they was just loud talking out there and carrying on and I started shooting.

MILLER JONES: They knew that our family was very active in the movement. So they were trying to scare us.

MILLER: But I really do believe that some of them got sprinkled that night with bullet shots because my brother-in-law and his son was out there just letting it go through in the woods.

SHERROD: That's how we stuck together. That's the strength we gained from each other in the civil rights movement.

LEMON: The local civil rights organizer was a transplant from Virginia, where he helped to found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a young fire brand named Charles Sherrod.

CHARLES SHERROD, SHIRLEY'S HUSBAND: We had no idea of the monster that we were undertaking to fight.

LEMON (on camera): Across the South, white officials were using every trick in the book to keep civil rights activists in check, to keep black voters from turning out. That helped set the stage for a violent confrontation as demonstrators began to gather here at the courthouse in downtown Newton on a day that became known as "Bloody Saturday."

C. SHERROD: I saw some whites coming out of the hardware store with ax handles. And they approached us and started beating us with the ax handles. They beat us down into the ground.

S. SHERROD: And my Aunt Joe, she's a little petite woman, she fell on -- you know, she put her body over his and was hollering at him -- at them to stop beating Charles Sherrod because they were going to kill him.

LEMON (voice-over): But that didn't stop Sherrod from driving backwoods roads to meet every black family in the area.

C. SHERROD: I was canvassing and bank accounting, knocking on this door and three or four pretty girls came to the door. They started talking about this girl, their sister, that was prettier than either one of them.

I said, prettier than either one of them? Lord, I want to see this girl. So they said they got a picture. I said, "I want to see the picture of your sister." And I pointed it out, and I said, I'm going to marry that girl.

LEMON: He did marry Shirley. It was a love story in a land of hate. Phone threats became part of the household routine.

C. SHERROD: Nigger, nigger, nigger, I'll blow your head off. You'll better be out in the house. We're going to burn you down. We're going to do this and we're going to do the other. It was just the regular nigger, nigger, nigger.

MILLER: I just told them to be careful because I knew they were determined. And I just told them to be careful. My heart was just bleed for them going home because I didn't know whether they would make it or not.

MILLER JONES: She kept telling Shirley, you got to stop. But she kept pushing. She said, "Mother, it's going to be all right."

LEMON: Just ahead: organizing black farmers to take on the white establishment.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

LEMON (voice-over): Here on her family farm in Baker County, Georgia, Shirley Sherrod's experiences as a young girl would shape her professional life. With black-owned farms heading towards extinction, Sherrod wanted to help.

MILLER: That's when she made up her mind that she was going to stay here and try to help make a difference in this community. She was always determined and she's always been a strong person.

LEMON: In 1967, Shirley and Charles set out to change the land, literally -- 6,000 acres to be exact. They helped created a land trust for black farmers with a long-range plan to build wealth. It was called New Communities. One acre at a time, it grew into one of the largest tracts of black-owned land in the country.

S. SHERROD: So, the whole idea of New Communities, we had big plans, was to go about the country, buying land, holding it in trust and turning it over to local Community Development Corporations.

LEMON: It embodied everything she hoped to achieve when she decided to stay in the South -- an achievement that would have made her father proud. But the Sherrod's white neighbors viciously opposed it, often resorting to violence, shooting at their home.

KENYATTA SHERROD, SON: I remember the bullet holes over my bunk bed. You know, it was I guess, a third of my life I had a bullet hole right by where I slept.

RUSSIA SHERROD, DAUGHTER: I was actually asleep and I was awakened by him karate chopping my door in telling me to get down. And you can't imagine what that does to a young child.

LEMON (on camera): In the beginning, the farm was successful. But the drought-stricken 70s forced Sherrod's organization to seek an emergency government loan. The money came but not for three years. By then it was much too late, according to the Sherrods, white agents were in no hurry to write checks to black farmers. The property was foreclosed on.

C. SHERROD: The first three years we made attempts to get loans from FHA. This was a government program which promoted itself as the last help that you could get from anywhere. But in our case, when I walked into the office, he told me the only way you're going to get a loan is over my dead body.

LEMON (voice-over): After losing the farm, life for the Sherrod family became very different. Money was tight. Bills mounted.

K. SHERROD: I'd walk in a couple of times, late at night, getting up, and see my mother crying over the bills.

LEMON: In 1984, Shirley Sherrod took a job at the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, headquartered in East Point, Georgia. Her boss was Jerry Pennant (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: She was able to save a lot of farmers of all races, hundreds of farmers in Georgia, that were impacted by Shirley. Nationwide, probably thousands.

LEMON: One of the white farmers she helped, Roger Spooner. But she was hesitant to help out at first. And that initial hesitation would later ignite a media frenzy. In 1999, Shirley Sherrod and other activists sued the U.S. Department of Agriculture for discrimination. Ten years later, Pigford versus Glickman would be part of the largest civil rights settlement in history.

S. SHERROD: Finally, on July 8th of last year, our lawyer called me and said, "Shirley, have you heard?" It's like 10:30 at night. She said, "We won!" And I'm like, "Really?"

She said, "You want to guess how much?" I said, "Is it at least $1 million, Rose?" She said, "It's almost $13 million." He was awarding $150,000 each to me and my husband from mental anguish.

LEMON: Just weeks after the settlement, Sherrod was offered a job at the very department she had just successfully sued. In August of 2009, Shirley Sherrod became the Georgia director of rural development for the Department of Agriculture.

Speculation has surfaced racing questions about whether she got the job as part of the settlement.

S. SHERROD: One didn't have anything to do with the other.

LEMON (on camera): Are you surprised that people are bringing this up? Or I don't know -- how do you feel about people bringing it up?

SHERROD: You know, it's -- you know, it's just another way that they try to twist the facts to make it look and seem like something else.

LEMON: During her long career fighting for civil rights, there was one life-changing moment -- a story about her personal struggle over race, the story of that white farmer who came to her for help decades early.

SHERROD: I was struggling with the fact that so many black people had 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.

DON LEMON, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): When this short, edited version of the speech was posted by a right-wing blogger, Shirley Sherrod was labeled "a racist" and asked to resign. But there was much more to the story.

SHERROD: That's when it was revealed to me that it's about those who have versus those who have not. And not so much about white and black. It's not, you know - it opened my eyes.

LEMON: The next day, Sherrod appeared on CNN. She said her words had been twisted and taken out of context.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What was the point?

SHERROD: The point was to get them to understand that we need to look beyond race.

LEMON: Stepping back up her story, 87-year-old Roger Spooner, and his wife, Elouise.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I have someone who wants to speak to this whole controversy. Her name is Elouise Spooner. Elouise, thanks for taking the time to talk to me. What do you think of this whole controversy? First of all, what do you think of Shirley?

ELOUISE SPOONER: She's a good friend. They have not treated her right. She's the one I give credit for helping us save our farm.

LEMON: The woman whose father was allegedly killed by a white farmer, would have her reputation rescued by a white farmer. Sherrod hasn't seen or spoken to the Spooners in more than 20 years. But three days after grabbing headlines across the nation, that would change.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I want the first hug. This means a lot to us. This means a lot.

SHERROD: Thank you so much, to me, too. Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you.

LEMON: A long-awaited reunion. A picture of racial unity.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

LEMON: We are digging deeper into this controversy. You'll hear from our panel of experts about how this story spun out of control and the possible implications it could have on the Obama administration.

Plus, our top stories including a deadly stampede at a concert and caught on tape, a jetter fighter - a fighter jet, I should say, spirals out of control. Find out how it all ends.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

LEMON: We want to update our top stories right now on CNN. 15 people are dead and at least 15 others hurt after a stampede in Germany. The victims were caught in a tunnel trying to get into a techno music event called "Love Parade 2010." Police were trying to block anyone else from entering when the panic started.

A massive search is underway right now for two missing American soldiers in Afghanistan. An Afghan intelligence source tells CNN they were captured by militants in Logar province after leaving their base in Kabul on Friday.

A Canadian fighter pilot is recovering after he narrowly escape the fiery jet crash. The pilot was practicing stunts before the Alberta International Air Show when his CF18 Hornet suddenly went down. If you look at the left of the flames, you'll see the pilot parachuting to the ground. Ejected at the last second.

Tonight, in the gulf, the ships have turned around and are headed back to the Deepwater Horizon drilling site. Now that once tropical storm Bonnie has lost its luster, crews can get back to work finding a permanent fix to the ruptured oil well. Officials say the static kill which consists of pumping dense mud into the well could start in less than a week.

More on the storms. Once called "Bonnie" right now in a moment, but first, this new video that we're just getting into CNN. It is from Hopkinton, Iowa where a dam collapsed after heavy rain. Entire towns are under water right now. I want to join Bonnie Schneider with the latest on what's going on here. Bonnie, last minute changes. They were just saying this - I'm just getting this in my ear so what is this all about?

BONNIE SCHNEIDER, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Well, you know, we're getting a report of a lot of damage certainly in Iowa. We're also tracking right now, Don, this just in. We have a tornado warning and I want to get to that first. That's in upstate New York. And you can see it right here, right into Tioga County. So this is severe weather happening right now. The strong line of thunderstorms has a history of producing rotation. We may see a tornado touch down at any time.

Back out towards the Iowa area, you can see that there are still some heavy rain and also the threat for severe weather. And that stretches all the way eastward all the way to Indiana as well as into Ohio. So it's a stormy evening and certainly a hot one as well. We're looking at temperatures shooting up, once again, records being shattered cross the board. The heat index into the triple digits plus, for big cities like New York, Washington, down through the Carolinas and certainly back out towards St. Louis, and even Chicago where we saw some tremendous flooding earlier this morning now we're starting to see the heat will build once again.

It looks like the heat advisory for Chicago itself though expired. It may be reissued once again tomorrow. I want to touch upon the tropics, too. Because we were talking a lot about tropical depression "Bonnie," even as early as this afternoon but the latest advisory downgraded the storm.

So now what we're looking at is just remnants of low pressure, meaning it's just isolated showers and thunderstorms rolling through Louisiana. The system dissipated breaking apart over the Gulf of Mexico due to strong wind shear. So, Don, Bonnie, the storm, turned out to be much less of a threat than we originally thought it might pose which is good news really for those in the gulf.

LEMON: Bonnie Schneider, thank you very much and lots more here to come tonight on CNN. You saw the Shirley Sherrod story. The woman behind the controversy. Now we're going to talk about the story behind this controversy. I have a panel of guests right here. We're going to talk about race in America. Has she really ripped the bandage off a subject that we need to talk about? A sore spot, so to speak, in America? Tough talk coming up, moments away.

And I have a reminder for you, CNN's Rob Marciano takes you inside the biggest cleanup job in the world long after the oil stops flowing. The damage done to the wildlife, the coastlines and the culture will have to be addressed. Don't miss the CNN special report "Rescue: Saving the Gulf" tonight 8:00 p.m. Eastern only here on CNN.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DAVID SUKER, NEW YORK CITY TEACHER: Such a waste of resources.

STEVE PERRY, CNN EDUCATION CONTRIBUTOR (voice-over): He's a teacher but he has no students.

(on camera): So you've been a teacher for 12 years?

SUKER: Yes.

PERRY: For the last year and a half, what have you been doing?

SUKER: I've been sitting in a rubber room.

What did I do today?

I just packed up my stuff, played some spades and left.

PERRY: And your salary is?

SUKER: $80,000.

I mean there are lots of teachers -

PERRY (voice-over): About 500 New York City teachers like Suker were assigned to rubber rooms when school ended in June. Together, these teachers earned and estimated $30 million a year to simply show up and sit in a room for eight hours, according to the city's education department. Some of them, including Suker, claim they don't know what their charged with.

SUKER: I don't deserve to be treated like this.

PERRY: He said he shouldn't be there but should be back in the classroom teaching his students.

SUKER: This process should have taken, at most, two to three weeks.

PERRY: So how could the nation's largest school district afford to let a teacher sit in a rubber room.

MICHAEL BEST, GENERAL COUNSEL, DEPT. OF EDUCATION: We didn't really have an agreement with the union as to where we could put these people if they weren't teaching.

PERRY: Best says all of that will change when a new agreement with the teacher's union takes effect in the fall.

BEST: We effectively modified the contract in ways to make the process move more quickly. We have 60 days once they're reassigned to get the investigation done and then 60 days after that to do the formal charges and a hearing.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: ... the education of young people.

PERRY: Department officials say they expect to rule on hundreds of backlogged cases by December but until them, teachers like Suker will not be in the classroom. They'll be assigned administrative duties.

SUKER: Am I outraged by that the taxpayers are paying, footing this bill? Yes, I am outrages. But should you blame me? I don't think you should blame me. I think you should blame the Department of Education that has let this bureaucracy flounder for so long.

PERRY: Steve Perry, New York.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

LEMON: All right. Now back to the Shirley Sherrod story. The ousted Agriculture Department employee and the firestorm her story has fueled. Tonight we're talking with Tim Wise. He's the author of the book "Color Blind," April Ryan, White House correspondent for American Urban Radio Network, and Warren Ballentine, the host of his own radio show and Bev Smith, the host of her own radio show as well. You guys doing OK?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We're doing fine.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Great.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hey, don.

LEMON: Bev, I learned this week that Shirley Sherrod is fearless. Why?

BEV SMITH, HOST "THE BEV SMITH SHOW": I think that Shirley Sherrod is the voice of the people who have been silent too long. She's fearless because fearless means nothing to fear. She has nothing to fear. She told the truth. And she told the truth about what's been happening to blacks in America. At a time when no one wanted to talk about it.

But, you know, it's funny. She tells the truth and she gets criticized. Andrew lies, not once, but twice. And Rush Limbaugh thinks he ought to be a hero. Help me, Jesus, I don't understand that. She is a voice - who's laughing? She's the voice of reason.

LEMON: Bev, that was Warren Ballentine. I think I can recognize his voice. He was laughing. When you said Andrew, you were talking about Andrew Breitbart, the ultraconservative blogger who put that short clip on his web site and really started this whole controversy.

SMITH: You say Breitbart, I say bright brat (ph). OK.

LEMON: To April and Warren, just a little bit. But Tim -

TIM WISE, AUTHOR "COLORBLIND": Yes.

LEMON: You heard what Bev said. Has Shirley Sherrod, you know, become the accidental modern-day civil rights activist? Has she ripped the bandage off race, at least talking about race and discrimination?

WISE: Well, I don't think she ripped it off, but because the right has been trying to race this administration and everybody affiliated with it for the last year to 18 months, it has now provided an opportunity for us to actually look at what the real face of racism in the country is. It certainly is not Shirley Sherrod. It's not, you know, the administration which Rush Limbaugh says is trying to purposely destroy the economy to pay white people back for slavery. And that's supposed to make some kind of sense.

Or you know, these right-wing talk show hosts that actually are staying that the tax on tanning beds in the health care bill is anti- white racist tax. I mean, this is the kind of crazy talk that passes for intellectual commentary on the right. And now we have a chance to push back. Shirley Sherrod is pushing back. Those who have been in the movement for years are pushing back. I hope that the administration will now push back and call these folks out for who they are and what they're doing.

We cannot allow the folks on the right side of history, not the right politically, but the right side of history, to stand back and remain silent in the face of these kinds of constant, incessant attacks. If you do that, it's like the kid in the playground that's being bullied who never stands up. Eventually, they end up on their rear end.

LEMON: And I'm going to play it for you, in just a bit, what she had to say about the president and how she feels he should be talking about race or handling the race issue. But first, Warren, might the handling of this affect the president's appeal among African- Americans?

WARREN BALLENTINE, HOST "THE WARREN BALLENTINE SHOW": It's a possibility very much so, Don. But I don't think African-Americans need to look to the president to come in and be the savior here. I mean, if we're going to have a real discussion about race in this country and let me say this, I applaud you, Don. Because you're doing something that most people in mainstream media won't do, outside of Bill Mayer (ph) and even Howard Stern who said, let the poison out when it comes to race relations.

You may be the only one dealing with this. We're going to talk about race, it doesn't have to come from the president. We can have the conversation in the media. And we need to talk about it on two levels. Institutionalized racism that is still effective today through the penal system, through the mortgage system, through the debt collection system, and then we also have to talk about accountability in the black community.

Look, we know who the kids are on the corner selling drugs and doing other things and we also have to have elders coming into our community and be just that, elders. Teach us, open doors. But we have to have this discussion now because what Shirley Sherrod went through was because she was African-American and partly because of another network's venom towards the president and the NAACP.

LEMON: But April, as part of the press corps, is the administration concerned about this story? If not, should they be?

APRIL RYAN, W.H. CORRESPONDENT, AMERICAN URBAN RADIO NETS.: Oh, yes, this administration is very concerned about this story. I mean, so concerned, in fact, I was e-mailing late last night, all day yesterday and into this morning senior administration officials about the fallout, about things possibly at the USDA, things happening at the NAACP.

You know, trying to fact check. But the bottom line is, Don, this issue of race is something that will always follow this president because of the fact that he is the first African-American president. That goes without saying. But this administration understands that if they tackle the issue of race, it will be polarizing. They will lose their white constituency that put this president into office.

LEMON: And April -

RYAN: Go ahead.

LEMON: Hold that thought. Hold that thought. Because you guys are going to want to weigh in on this and I think that you're getting to the next subject. I asked Miss Sherrod why she asked the president to visit her in Georgia when she spoke to him on the phone. Listen.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SHERROD: I'd like to show him some of the hard fight battles and the places they took place.

LEMON (on camera): Why?

SHERROD: He didn't live that kind of life. You know, I think he's a black man who lived mostly in a white world. He hasn't had the kind of experiences we have had. I think if he can at least go and talk to a few people, you know, he should look at this where that's what brought us forward and you'll see some of the people in Baker County in that documentary. He needs to hear from some of these people about what the struggle is like.

LEMON: Do you think it will make him a better president, leader, person?

SHERROD: I think he could grow from it.

LEMON: In what way?

SHERROD: I think it would help him to be able to see that, you know, race is an issue. We need to deal with it and not just throw it under the rug.

LEMON: Do you think he should be stronger on issues when it comes to race?

SHERROD: Yes, I do.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

LEMON: So, guys, what do you think? As a matter of fact, hold that thought. Hold that thought. We'll get your answers after the break.

What do you think of the Shirley Sherrod firestorm? Make sure you be a part of our conversation, viewers. Send me a message on Twitter and Facebook. Check out my blog at cnn.com/don and look for me on Foursquare. We want to hear from you. More of our discussion moments away.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

LEMON: We're going to continue our discussion now, we're talking about the Shirley Sherrod story. OK. Our panel is back. So listen you guys wanted to weigh in on this. I asked Shirley Sherrod what she thought about why she wanted the president to come to Georgia.

Basically what she said to me was the truth will set you free. That's really the gist of it. Tim Wise, what do you make of her comments?

WISE: I think she's absolutely right. The danger of not talking about race, whether it's us as individuals or whether it's the president who I realized has to walk gently on the subject. But without talking about it, we end up reinforcing the denial especially in the white community that racism is still a problem.

Frankly, we cannot afford to allow folks to continue to believe that we're in this post racial era when every week there is a new story and every month a new data or some new study suggesting just how not (INAUDIBLE) we are. So we have to speak up, we have to talk about the elephant in the room, especially when folks are uncomfortable about it. They've never wanted to talk about it at any point in history. But we have to do it.

LEMON: Bev Smith, you were about to jump through the television when I said, hold on, we have a break. Go ahead.

SMITH: That's right. Well, first of all, I want to thank CNN for playing Miss Shirley and I don't call her Shirley, I call her Miss Shirley because that's what we do when we respect someone like her. I think that she was chosen for this time to remind us. You asked the question, what about the voice, to remind us of what we're going through.

You see, last Saturday in South Carolina people were marching about the killing of Anthony Hill. Most major networks didn't cover it. We marched in South Carolina because he was dragged by a white man who has not been charged with anything. The police down there are still trying to figure out if it's a hate crime and this man lost his head, his arms, his leg. He was dragged through the black community, Anthony Hill was, so that the black community could be intimidated.

What Miss Shirley did, was she showed us the intimidation. And black people have been talking about this race issue because we're at the bottom of it. We need white folks to start talking about it.

LEMON: Bev, I want to get Warren in here. Warren, because you wanted to weigh in on this as well. But also, is it just the president? What about the NAACP? Some people say they threw her right under the bus.

BALLENTINE: Well, they didn't do their due diligence. And that's what everybody did who reacted to this. In fact, when this story first broke on my show I came out publicly and said I'm not going to do anything because this is the same thing that they did to Jeremiah Wright. They played a clip without the whole context.

But I want to say this, Don, about this whole race issue. There are two things we need to concentrate on. One is this tea party movement. And I'm saying this in a sense to all the tea party movement out there, black folks don't think you're racist. We think your ideology is racism when you start hollering state rights. You know the history of this country, the reason Dr. King marched on the federal government was to stop states rights because we were having Jim Crow laws put into place. So when you start hollering state rights, we start thinking Jim Crow. Also, one other thing that we have to do in this country is we have to talk race. Because you know, we are all brothers and sisters. No matter what nationality you are, we are.

LEMON: You're right.

BALLENTINE: If you believe in god and you believe in Christ, we are children of god, we are all one. We have to get past it. We got all these technology and we're too stupid to get along.

LEMON: And America, even if you don't believe in whatever, if you're an atheist, we still are supposed to accept everyone. Hey list, April, go ahead real quick.

RYAN: OK. Really fast, I think one of the reasons why racist stuck like glue to this president, specially right now, a Democratic source said this poignantly, there are major milestones with this administration but blacks do not feel like they're very late to it and I think there will be a litmus test for this administration. I don't think I know, it's the black farmer settlement.

President Obama put $1.25 billion in his 2011 budget and we'll see if Congress does push through this money. If not, the president can just go on and do it through the judgment fund as well. He can do it on his own. So we'll see what happens.

LEMON: You guys -

BALLENTINE: Yes, that's going to be the measuring stick, April, right there, the black farmers get their money.

SMITH: Let's not forget the Senate. The Senate has -

RYAN: Right.

(CROSSTALK)

LEMON: Hey, guys, we're talking over each other and I don't want that to happen. We only have a few seconds left. And in that time I want to thank you all for coming on and being so candid about the issue. I wish we could talk much, much more about it. As a matter of fact, I promise to invite you all back. Thank you and have a great evening.

SMITH: Thanks CNN for having us.

BALLENTINE: Thanks for dealing with the issue, Don.

LEMON: If you missed any part of our special, you can see it tonight at 10:00 p.m. Eastern.

In the meantime, here's Rob Marciano's special report.