Dedicate Your No-Trump Vote: Kathryn Stripling Byer
DedicateYourNoTrumpVote.com is home to a growing collection of voters who are thinking beyond the individual and dedicating their votes as acts of hope for the future. This brand new website includes a wide range of voices, from Pulitzer Prize-winning and bestselling novelists to a retired lieutenant colonel with the US Army Special Forces, teachers, social workers, and people from various walks of life. Feel free to #DedicateYourNoTrumpVote on Twitter, Facebook, or by submitting to the site.
I was raised in deep southwest Georgia, called “the bottom of the backwoods” by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. By the time I reached my teen years, Jim Crow had become less visible than during my parents’ early years. Only recently has my mother been able to tell me how she would arrive, after crossing the rattle-trap bridge over the Flint River, at the Baker County court house where she worked as a secretary, to find blood smeared on the hallway’s woodwork. She knew what that blood meant: another black man had been dragged out of jail, beaten, and hauled away to be lynched or shot, his body thrown into the river.
I grew into young womanhood on the cusp of the Civil Rights Movement. When I was a teenager, fretting over the usual teenage girl torments, our county was shaken by the murder of a black farmer in the nearby county where my mother had worked. He was shot in the back by his white neighbor. Within days, protests raged, both within my county and across the Flint River where the black man’s family lived.
I had no idea who they were, this family. I had no way of knowing that they had a daughter four years younger than I. And even if I had known, what difference would that have made to me, as I stared in the mirror, lamenting my latest zit? Listening to Elvis by day and by night to the dinner table talk about outside agitators?
So much more than the muddy Flint River separated me from that other young girl.
For decades I never knew who she was, this girl on the other side of the river, until one morning in 2010, when I happened to be listening to a TV news show about charges leveled against a Georgia woman by the notorious right-wing blogger Andrew Breitbart. The woman in question was the USDA Director of Rural Development for Georgia, and she happened to be from my neck of the woods. Baker County itself. Breitbart’s attack, based on a maliciously edited video of her speech at a recent NAACP meeting, had made her sound like a racist and she was fired immediately by Tom Vilsack as a result. When the tape was proven to be a fraud, she was offered another government job, which she politely refused.
In the midst of such a savage right-wing assault, and cave-in by the Obama administration, there she was, my long-ago neighbor, responding graciously to interviewers’ probes and speculations. There she was, at last, that young girl about whom I knew nothing until that moment. Not even her name. Shirley Miller Sherrod.
My brother knew her, though. After years of working with the public schools in our adjoining counties, he had come to respect Shirley and her mother for their efforts to reach out to both black and white communities. As I sat in the Albany airport, several months later, waiting for my flight back to North Carolina, I saw him walking toward me, big smile on his face, at his side a woman who looked awfully familiar.
“This is Shirley Sherrod,” he announced. There she was, arriving for the same flight to Atlanta. There, without a doubt, she was, the woman I had come to admire so much that I unashamedly called her “my hero.”
I reached out to her, and she reached back. A hug I’ll never forget.
Standing in the security line, we chatted briefly about our rural connections. She told me how generous she had found my father, a well-known farmer in our region, when she came to talk with him about her new job as Director of Rural Development. For that time, she told me, he was a progressive presence in our separate communities.
I still like to imagine their talk, Shirley being welcomed into my father’s office, where the two of them discussed agriculture, what black and white farmers needed, and how, as a black woman, she could reach out to both communities. It’s tempting to exaggerate the importance of that encounter, of course, to assuage my longing for some sort of healing, some sort of connection in the midst of the racial division that continues to drag us all down with it. No matter. I am grateful that it happened at all.
Therefore, in honor of that meeting, when my stubborn father, once a George Wallace supporter, sat talking for an hour or more with a black woman doing what was undeniably considered at that time to be a man’s job, I dedicate my No-Trump vote to Shirley Sherrod and my father, C. M. Stripling, both of whom showed the courage and generosity of spirit to reach out to each other. I need to remember that meeting when my soul goes slack at the prospect of Donald Trump leading this country. I must never forget my arms reaching out to Shirley Sherrod. And hers reaching back.