Shirley Miller Sherrod oral history interview conducted by Joseph Mosnier in Albany, Georgia, Sept. 15, 2011, Civil Rights History Project, LOC
A Story from Here
“Bad Baker” is what SNCC organizers called Baker County, 15 miles southwest of Albany in Southwest Georgia. “There was an excellent reason for keeping your head down [in the county] if you were black,” recalled Shirley Miller Sherrod who was born and grew up there; that was the Sheriff L. Warren “the Gator” Johnson. Some say he acquired the nickname ”Gator” because his voice sounded like the rattle of an alligator. Others say he got the name because he shed ”crocodile tears” when he testified before the General Assembly. The Gator was rumored to have murdered at least four Black people in cold blood. A sign hanging on the gas station he owned in Newton read, “We Want White People Business Only.”
Shirley Miller grew up outside of Newton, Georgia on a 62½ acre farm that had been owned by her family since the late 19th century. She was the oldest of five girls and started working the fields with her father, Hosie Miller, when she was four years old. The family grew staples – corn, cotton, and peanuts – but they also grew cucumbers, “which was a big deal because it gave us a crop that provided income in the spring.” In 1964, Mr. Miller became the first Black person in Baker County to get a loan to build a home. Although he wanted to build with brick, he was only approved for a wood or concrete block house because only white people lived in brick houses. In March of 1965, the house was nearly completed, a new baby (a son this time) was on the way, and Shirley remembered it was “the happiest time for our family.”
But the county had a murderous white culture. On Monday, March 15, 1965. Hosie Miller went out into his pasture to see about an intransigent cow that had wandered off the property of his white neighbor. When he got there, the neighbor claimed that some of Miller’s cows were his. Not wanting to get into a heated argument, Shirley’s father suggested they settle the matter in court and turned to walk away. The neighbor pulled his rifle and shot Hosie Miller in the back.
Almost a year earlier, June 1964, SNCC project director Charles Sherrod was nearly beaten to death in Newton by a group of white men who attacked him with wooden axe handles. Shirley Miller’s Aunt Josey Miller, who was nearby, ran and threw her body over Sherrod. Perhaps because of her fierce, protective determination, the men walked away. Charles Sherrod and Shirley Miller married in 1966.
The demands of cotton shaped the lives of the people in Southwest Georgia from before the Civil War and into the 20th century. Black men and women tended the crops, first as slaves and later as sharecroppers, on the plantations in rural areas of Baker, Mitchell, Calhoun, Randolph, Terrell, Lee, and Worth counties. Meanwhile, Albany, the regional economic and social hub, buzzed with the business of cotton trading. Laws and customs worked together to keep Black and white Georgians separate and unequal. In the rural South, unspoken rules of racial etiquette and their violent enforcement kept Black residents disenfranchised and cheated of the fruits of their labor. Parents taught their children not to be at the wrong place at the wrong time and not to look a white person in the eye. Even though peanuts and pecans had replaced cotton in the fields, the majority of people SNCC met still worked for white people on plantations and were deeply afraid of stepping out of their assigned place. But when the Movement got going in Southwest Georgia, it kept going. Long after the 1960s, SNCC’s Charles Sherrod and his wife, Shirley Miller Sherrod, helped Black residents organize farm cooperatives and self-help ventures to improve their lives.
Shirley Sherrod, The Courage to Hope