One of the bigger news stories of the earlier part of last week was the encounter between students from Kentucky’s Covington Catholic High School with a Native American veteran. The students were in Washington DC to attend an anti-abortion rally when, according to a snippet of a cellphone recording, they began to harass a Native American veteran. The alleged encounter triggered an outpouring of criticism of the students, not only from Hollywood twits but from the entire spectrum of liberal to conservative journalists and other opinion leaders as well, with insults and threats of harassment and violence directed at the students, their parents, and their school.
But a longer cellphone recording told a different story. Sure, Native Americans were being harassed and verbally assaulted, but not by the Covington Catholic students. The true villains were a group of African American religious fanatics, calling themselves the Black Hebrew Israelites, who were preaching to the Native Americans that they had lost their ancestral homelands to America’s European colonists and their descendants because they had rejected Christianity for paganism. The Covington Catholic students were innocent bystanders to an encounter which they did not provoke and which they did not participate. The infamous photograph of the MAGA-hat wearing student and the Native American drummer was taken after the drummer approached the student. Many critics have since retracted and apologized for their initial criticisms. An excellent account of the creation and discrediting of the smear can be found at https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/01/media-must-learn-covington-catholic-story/581035/?fbclid=IwAR0P9XLhARZeIJleZZj9Xks6uAYEFLNfyMz3gKXlykmrU80JmCYQ1zQ1GZU.
The incident reminded me of one from 2010, in which an African American Agriculture Department bureaucrat lost her job and was nearly destroyed over a speech she gave to the NAACP about her work for a Georgia nonprofit agency several decades earlier. When working for the nonprofit, Shirley Sherrod’s responsibility was to help impoverished farmers cope with legal predicaments. In the small portion of a carefully edited recording posted on a right-wing propaganda site, she seemed to be saying that she felt so much animosity towards white people that she did not really want to help a white farmer, threatened with foreclosure, who had sought her aid. Her remarks elicited such intense criticism from right-wing zealots that President Obama’s spineless Agriculture Secretary fired her.
It was only after her humiliation that a recording of the entire speech was produced. Like the longer cellphone recording of the Covington Catholic students and the Native American drummer, this one seemed to exonerate Ms. Sherrod. In the longer recording, Ms. Sherrod said that despite her dislike for white people—inspired by the murder of her father by a white racist—she believed that her devotion to Jesus Christ required her to do her best to help the poor of whatever race. Additional belated research proved that in the case of the white farmer requesting her help, she referred him to an attorney who solved his legal problems, which enabled him to not only keep his farm but to improve its productivity and profitability. She was offered another position with the Obama Agriculture Department (which she declined) and reached a settlement with the right-wing propaganda site which had smeared her. Ms. Sherrod and the farmer, who stepped forward to publicly defend her and credit her with his success, remain friends. Ms. Sherrod’s story can be found at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Firing_of_Shirley_Sherrod.
So what does this all mean? The obvious lessons are that words can be taken out of context, that recordings can be edited to convey different meanings from what fuller and more honest versions convey, that innocent people—a hapless bureaucrat, naïve student protesters, whatever—can be mercilessly smeared and defamed, and that everyone should be careful to get all relevant facts before making judgments.
And one should not take too much solace from the fact that Shirley Sherrod ultimately won vindication and that the Covington Catholic students seem to be on their way to vindication as well. They were grievously hurt by those who had no right to hurt them, and they owe their salvation only because some possessed honest recordings and chose to come forward with them.
Notwithstanding the failure of these smear campaigns, the probability that more innocent people will be targeted for destruction is probably increasing, given the increasing passions in politics, and the increasing sophistication with which we can record and edit our recordings to distort the meaning of what was initially recorded. And we should not forget that neither Ms. Sherrod nor the Covington Catholic students were public figures. They were private citizens who nonetheless were targeted by malicious forces of the left and right for destruction. If people as obscure as they were can be targeted, what’s to prevent any one of us from being next?
Malcolm L. Cross has lived in Stephenville and taught politics and government at Tarleton since 1987. His political and civic activities include service on the Stephenville City Council (2000-2014) and on the Erath County Republican Executive Committee (1990 to the present). He was Mayor Pro Tem of Stephenville from 2008 to 2014. He is a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and the Stephenville Rotary Club, and does volunteer work for the Boy Scouts of America. Views expressed in this column are his and do not reflect those of The Flash as a whole.