Shirley Sherrod
Shirley Sherrod

Controversy over the firing of an African-American government official continues to play out in the United States.  The Obama administration formally apologized to Shirley Sherrod on Wednesday after it became clear her dismissal from the Department of Agriculture was based on a portion of videotaped remarks taken out of context by a conservative political blog.  But President Obama has not commented publicly on the controversy.

After a White House briefing in which President Obama's spokesman Robert Gibbs formally voiced an administration apology to Shirley Sherrod,  Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack went before television cameras to accept full responsibility for the affair.

Vilsack said he telephoned Sherrod, the department's Director of Rural Development in the southern state of Georgia, to formally convey his apology. "I started off by extending to her my personal and profound apologies for the pain and discomfort that has been caused to her and her family over the course of the last several days," he said.

In accepting full responsibility, Vilsack referred to the fact that Sherrod and her husband were claimants in a discrimination-related class action lawsuit against the Department of Agriculture based on claims by black families in the 1960s.

Vilsack said Sherrod had experienced what he called some of the prejudice and bias the Agriculture Department is still dealing with in terms of outstanding legal claims, adding that they discussed another job for her in the Department, which she said she would consider.

Secretary Vilsack went to Capitol Hill late Wednesday to meet with African-American lawmakers. California Democrat Barbara Lee, who heads the Congressional Black Caucus, spoke to reporters. "This is a moment that our nation needs to really understand, that we have to begin to discuss race. We cannot believe that this is a post-racial era," she said.

The controversy also came up during an earlier White House news briefing.  Spokesman Robert Gibbs responded to reporters who asked when President Obama and other White House officials learned about the matter, and their initial responses. "Members of this administration, members of the media, members of different political factions on both sides of this, have all made determinations in judgment without a full set of facts," he said.

Department of Agriculture officials initially told Sherrod that her resignation was being sought after the edited version of her videotaped remarks was posted on a conservative Internet blog, with a headline suggesting that she was a racist.

The video was from a speech Sherrod gave to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or NAACP, a leading U.S. civil rights group, in which Sherrod recalled having struggled 24 years before over whether to help a white farmer.  

The full, unedited 43-minute video shows Sherrod delivering a message about the importance of racial reconciliation and about the struggles poor Americans encounter.  The farmer and his wife say they strongly disagree with suggestions that Sherrod was a racist.

After initially calling her words shameful, the NAACP retracted its statement and apologized to Sherrod.  

The NAACP has also been a focus of political debate after it recently called on the politically conservative and libertarian Tea Party movement to eliminate what the civil rights group calls racist, bigoted and anti-Semitic elements from its membership.

The controversy comes about a year after an incident in Massachusetts that focused attention on the question of ongoing racial issues in the United States.

In that incident, a local white police officer arrested a Harvard University professor, an African-American, who was initially identified by neighbors as a burglar.

At first, President Obama said that police had "acted stupidly" in arresting Henry Louis Gates, Jr.  He later invited Gates and the arresting officer to the White House in an attempt to close the controversy.