Charles Melvin Sherrod died on Tuesday at the age of 85 in Albany, Ga., a place h – went to in 1961 and never left. If you are not from southwest Georgia, his name might not be familiar. But Charles Sherrod is the most important civil rights figure you’ve never heard of. Recovering his story offers us a chance not only to honor a civil rights hero, but also to better understand the struggle for freedom to which he committed himself for so long.
Sherrod was born on Jan. 2, 1937, in Surry, Va., a place he described as a “speck.” He never knew his father and was raised primarily by his grandmother within a broad community of friends and cousins. Even as a young child, Sherrod possessed a deep faith in God and a precocious theological imagination. Probably inspired by the sermons he heard at Mount Olive Baptist Church, he would often play church, preaching to other children and soon sensing a real call to the ministry. “I was preaching when I was about 6 years old,” Sherrod told me, adding, “I was born a preacher.” He would carry that preacher’s zeal and deep moral vision with him for the rest of his life.
Despite the racism and suffocating poverty he experienced in childhood, Sherrod excelled in school. He attended the all-Black Peabody High School where he played sports, acted in plays and served as student body president and school chaplain. Sherrod then attended Virginia Union University where he earned his undergraduate degree in sociology, and then an M.A. in theology, fulfilling his ambition to become a minister.
During this time, Sherrod’s Christian commitments first led him to challenge the dehumanization of Jim Crow. He participated in a “kneel-in” at a segregated church in 1954 and later joined a picket in front of Thalhimer’s department store. “I saw the [lynching] rope in my mind,” he confessed, but he also felt a sense of responsibility since people were “coming to me, asking me for leadership.”
Sherrod was a natural leader: smart and calm with a ready, broad smile.
In April 1960, his civil rights activities took Sherrod to a meeting at Shaw University, where the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was founded. SNCC’s vision — nonviolence, collective action and the pursuit of a beloved community in which all people are afforded dignity, respect and care — appealed to Sherrod’s calling, both to Christianity and racial justice. After the meeting, Sherrod told Ella Baker, the veteran activist who was then the executive secretary for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference who convened the students, that “I’d be willing to be placed anywhere.” She sent him to southwest Georgia, a place W.E.B. Du Bois had once called the “Egypt of the Confederacy,” where he would spend the next six decades working for freedom.