This week, as promised in last week’s editorial, the late Charles Melvin Sherrod is our Classroom subject, and a formidable subject he is. Sherrod died on Oct. 11, in Albany, Georgia, at 85. Few members of the Civil Rights Movement were as devoted to both theory and practice of fighting racism and discrimination as Sherrod. That is, he fully practiced what he preached, taking the lessons he acquired during his days in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and applying in the organization of farming cooperatives.
Sherrod was born Jan. 2, 1937, in Petersburg, Virginia and raised by his grandmother, a devout Baptist. It was from her beliefs and instruction that he was totally immersed in the Baptist religion, and at an early age, an active participant in church affairs, including singing in the choir. Soon, he was youth preacher at Mount Olivet Baptist Church, urging the younger members in fellowship. His first brush with Jim Crow occurred when he was two years old and his mother forcibly removed him from the white section of a bus.
By 1954, just after the Supreme Court decision of Brown v. the Board of Education, he began his civil rights activism, joining others in the fight to end segregation in public schools. Before the advent of the sit-ins, Sherrod had taken such a bold step when he and a friend attended an all-white church and took a seat in the sanctuary. From this decisive step came his progress toward even more demanding and dangerous encounters later in 1961 as a student at Virginia Union University. He was a protester in a group of students during a sit-in at several department stores. In the winter of 1961, he and three other students traveled to Rock Hill, South Carolina, to support students there who had been arrested for sit-ins. His scholarship and activism were instrumental in his being offered a teaching position, but he turned it down and instead set out for Shaw University and became a founding member of SNCC.
Always an audacious demonstrator for his rights, Sherrod was among the first to practice the “no-jail” policy when arrested for participating in the sit-in actions. He was 22 when he arrived in southwest Georgia as a field worker for SNCC and began organizing young people to register voters and generally oppose the demeaning Jim Crow laws. For three very challenging years he was at the helm of such rallies and demonstrations, often arrested, but was undaunted in passing out leaflets and defying law enforcement officials. The SNCC activists extended their work throughout the region, and their commitment and risk became an enduring story of the struggle in America for civil and human rights.
It was in this sector of Georgia that Sherrod dedicated his determination to bring about change, especially for Black farmers who had been for years systematically denied their rights as citizens. He was relentless in urging residents to exercise their franchise, to register and vote despite the inevitable harassment and mistreatment—and far too often death. When he wasn’t an active fighter on the ramparts in the area, he found time to continue his pursuit to be a minister. To that end, he earned a master’s degree in sacred theology from Union Theological Seminary in 1967. After this sojourn he was back in Albany where he continued at the helm of the Southwest Georgia Project for Community Education. He also was director of New Communities, Inc., a cooperative farming project from 1969 to 1985. During his period he also served on the Albany City Commission and in 1996 ran unsuccessfully for the George State Senate. Two things were inseparable from this political activism—working in various facets of religion, mainly as a chaplain at the Georgia State Prison, and lending his glorious voice in church and community groups. This was something he began at Albany State College where he sang beside Bernice Reagon, later a founding member of Sweet Honey and the Rock.
And we would be remiss to ignore his wife, Shirley, who was often by his side as well as making her own indelible mark as an activist in the struggle for civil and human rights. At his funeral on Oct. 22, there was a litany of songs about his life, including one he composed called “Soul Child.” One line from the song, sung by Rutha Harris, who joined Sherrod as one of the original “Freedom Singers,” was “The tree limb couldn’t hold me, segregation tried. Jumped the gun on freedom, getting closer with every stride. Nothing but a soul child.”
Willie Ricks, who is often cited with first shouting “Black Power,” was among the civil rights luminaries at the services. “That little old country boy named Charles Sherrod said we’ll do something about it. And he came to Albany, Georgia and we rounded the people up. And we marched and we demonstrated and we sang and we fought in the streets and we died. But at the same time, Sherrod taught us our history. He let us know that we’re Africans.”
Russia Sherrod, Charles’ daughter, recounted fervent memories of her father and the lessons he bestowed on her. “He will always be a part of me,” she said, gripping a piece of African cloth that was widely worn at the funeral. And Sherrod will always be part of the movement that he helped propel to victory.