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ANDERSON COOPER 360 DEGREES

Disaster in the Gulf Day 92; Race in America

Aired July 20, 2010 - 22:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Day 92 of the BP disaster, and we're going to have the latest on the spill and reports that BP's CEO, Tony Hayward, may be stepping down.

But we begin tonight with "Keeping Them Honest" on the story much of the country has been talking about today. Twenty-four hours ago, you probably never heard of this woman, Shirley Sherrod. Now it's likely she's a household name.

In that time, comments she made were taken out of context. She was smeared by allegations of racism, lost her job, and is now being redeemed by the truth, it seems, the whole truth. Her story, the whole story, says a lot about how quick we can be to judge, how wrong we can be when we do, and how the truth is out there, if only people would only seek it out, instead of trying to score political points or run from political heat.

If more people did, Shirley Sherrod might still have a job.

She was forced out as the Agriculture Department's Georgia director of rural development over an edited videotape of remarks she made at a local banquet last March. Now, the video was posted on a conservative Web site run by a man named Andrew Breitbart. Here is some of that edited video that was posted.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SHIRLEY SHERROD, FORMER USDA OFFICIAL: The first time I was faced with having to help a white farmer save his farm, he took a long time talking, but he was trying to show me that he was superior to me. I knew what he was doing, but he had come to me for help.

What he didn't know is, while he was taking all that time trying to show me he was superior to me, was I was trying to decide just how much help I was going to give him.

(LAUGHTER)

SHERROD: I was struggling with the fact that so many black people had lost their farmland, and here I was faced with having to help a white a person save their land.

So, I didn't give him the full force of what I could do.

I did enough, so that when he -- I -- I assumed the Department of Agriculture had sent him to me, either that or -- or the Georgia Department of Agriculture. And he needed to go back and report that I did try to help him.

So, I took him to a white lawyer that we -- that had attended some of the training that we had provided, because Chapter 12 bankruptcy had just been enacted for the family farmer. So, I figured, if I take him to one of them, that his own kind would take care of him.

That's when it was revealed to me that it's about poor vs. those who have, and not so much about white -- it is about white and black, but it's not -- you know, it opened my eyes, because I took him to one of his own.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: Now, some of that, on the face of it, certainly sounds offensive, saying she took him to a white lawyer, saying the lawyer would take care of his own kind, saying she didn't give the farmer the full force of what she could do, that she just did enough.

It sounds like she's talking about her attitude as a government official. But that's not the whole videotape. Mr. Breitbart either cut offer off or didn't have the rest of the story she told, which is actually about recognizing and overcoming prejudice, not practicing it.

Now, you can believe her or not. You can think she's wrong or right, but her actual comments were misrepresented. You are going to hear the context tonight. You will hear from her and the white farmer whom she was talking about. And you will hear from the NAACP, who today apologized to her.

See, after that video was released and the Agriculture Department reportedly forced her to resign, the NAACP denounced her, calling her remarks -- quote -- "shameful."

Ms. Sherrod says she was told by an undersecretary at the Agriculture Department that the White House wanted her gone. She says she had texted her resignation after being -- after pulling over on the side of a road under pressure.

Well, now we have the entire speech just released a short time ago. Ms. Sherrod wasn't talking about actions she took as a government official. It turns out she was talking about something that happened 24 years ago, not when she worked for the government, but when she worked for a nonprofit organization.

And her speech actually begins with her father's murder 45 years ago at the hands of a white man and how that experience shaped her perception. It continues 24 years ago with that farmer, whom you will meet in a moment. It continues with this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SHERROD: Forty-five years ago, I couldn't stand here and say what I'm saying, what I will say to you tonight. Like I told you, God helped me to see that it's not just about black people. It's about poor people. And I have come a long way. I knew that I couldn't live with hate. You know, as my mother has said to so many, if we had tried to live with hate in our hearts, we would probably be dead now.

But I have come to realize that we have to work together. And, you know, it's sad that we don't have a room full of white and blacks here tonight, because we have to overcome the divisions that we have. We have to get to the point where, as Toni Morrison said, race exists, but it doesn't matter.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: So, now the NAACP has apologized. That tape was just released by them, the full tape. We are going to talk the its head, the head of the NAACP, in a moment about why they were so quick to basically throw her under the bus.

The USDA is not backing down, however, and its head denies any White House involvement. Here is what he said a short time ago.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TOM VILSACK, U.S. AGRICULTURE SECRETARY: I didn't speak to anyone at the White House. I didn't speak to anybody at the White House.

When I saw the statements and the context of the statements, it -- it -- I determined that it would make it difficult for her to do her job as a rural development director, and that it would potentially compromise our capacity to close the chapter on civil rights cases.

I didn't want anything to jeopardize her job in terms of getting the job done and getting people to work in Georgia, and I certainly didn't want us to have a controversy making it more difficult to turn the page. So, I made this decision. It's my decision. Well, nobody from the White House contacted me about this at all.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: So, she is still out of a job.

Now, Andrew Breitbart, meantime, who aired the video in a blog post which begins by saying -- quote -- "Context is everything," well, he spoke out tonight on "JOHN KING, USA."

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "JOHN KING, USA")

ANDREW BREITBART, PUBLISHER, BREITBART.COM: What is the exculpatory evidence? What exists on that video that will help make that racist -- her racist sentiments go away, and the fact that, when the audience accepts her racist statements, she doesn't say, wait, come on, I'm not racist?

(END VIDEO CLIP) COOPER: Well, Shirley Sherrod joins us now.

Shirley, you said that racism was behind your father's murder and that his death was the reason why you ended up doing the kind of work you do, having lived a lifetime of helping farmers and others.

What has this entire experience today been like for you? I mean, you're still out of a job.

SHERROD: Yes.

It's just so unreal to me that it happened, because I have not lived a racist life. I have had reasons why I could have, but I have not tried to be -- I have not tried to live a life of hate, as I said when I spoke. I have tried to turn what happened early on in my life into a positive.

I turned it into work. And I turned it into work for people.

COOPER: Now, I mean, some people, when they saw that edited clip of your speech, would say that you were showing -- you know, you showed discrimination to a farmer because he was white, and that really the speech was about you conveying your own personal journey and transformation.

I mean, you're saying that, basically, in the full context, that's what the speech was about.

SHERROD: That's exactly what it was about.

I tried -- I tried to use my life to help people to see that, if I could move beyond race, if I could move beyond the ability to try to hate, then -- and when you look at what I -- what happened to us, when you look at what was done, if I could move beyond that to a life of love and service, we all should be able to do it.

And that's my message. That's my message to any group that I talk to. And that's especially my message when I speak to young people.

COOPER: When people hear the language, though, that you used about talking about bringing the farmer to a white -- a white attorney because he would take care of his own kind, that makes people uncomfortable.

SHERROD: That's what -- I was trying to convey how I felt 24 years ago, when it finally -- when, working with this farmer, it finally dawned on me that some of the things that happen to black farmers also happen to white farmers.

Prior to that, I didn't think that. I thought white farmers had all of the advantages and black farmers none of them. As you know, black farmers were losing a lot of land. The very -- Department of Agriculture was discriminating against them. My own father faced that. Many farmers that I worked with through the years faced that. And when I worked with this -- when this -- when this white farmer came to me, when Mr. Spooner came to me, it was my first time being faced with having to help a white farmer save his farm. I used the story to tell what I went through to get to the point where I could get beyond that. And I try to say that to audience...

COOPER: Would you...

SHERROD: Pardon?

COOPER: Today, the language that you used, talking about one of his own kind, is that language you would still use today? Would you still recommend a...

SHERROD: No.

COOPER: ... a white farmer go to a white lawyer?

SHERROD: No. And that's, you know, totally not -- not so.

Many of the white farmers that I helped through the years got the same treatment that the black farmers I helped got. You know, I didn't -- I didn't -- I -- I used the first farmer I was helping to try to show what I dealt with in getting to the point where I could treat a white farmer the same way I treated a black farmer.

That's the only thing. And I'm trying to...

COOPER: One of the things...

SHERROD: Pardon?

COOPER: Sorry. I'm sorry. We have a cross with the satellite.

One of the things the NAACP originally criticized, not just you in their original statement, which they have now backtracked and reversed on and apologized to you, but they also criticized the response of the audience, and that's something Andrew Breitbart also pointed out, that some people in the audience seemed to be agreeing with some of your statements.

Do you believe there was anything inappropriate in the way the audience was responding?

SHERROD: You know -- you know, when I was looking at that, I can't even remember how the audience really was responding that night.

I wasn't trying to get a response out of them, other than to get them to see that, as I said, we need to work together. I wasn't doing anything to divide. I was -- I was trying to use a situation to actually bring people together. And I say that.

COOPER: You said that you were -- sorry.

When you were told to resign, you say that they said that the White House was putting on pressure... SHERROD: That's...

(CROSSTALK)

COOPER: ... that -- that you were going to -- that they were going to put you on "Glenn Beck" that day, and they seemed, you know, intimidated or frightened by that.

Do you still -- the White House said they -- or the head of the Agriculture Department has said they -- the White House was not involved, he did not hear from the White House.

Do you still believe the White House was involved?

SHERROD: I do believe the White House was involved. I don't think I would have been told that if it wasn't.

COOPER: And do you still believe -- and Andrew Breitbart actually kind of confirmed this when he said that this wasn't about you, although, frankly, I'm sure it doesn't feel that way to you, given that you're out of a job, but he says this is really about the NAACP and -- and their criticism of the Tea Party.

Do you think that's what this all stems from?

SHERROD: That's exactly what it started from.

That's why it hurt that much more for the NAACP to criticize me, without looking into me and the work that I have done and what I stood for. They had no idea. I think they have learned since then.

COOPER: Ms. Sherrod, stay with us. We have got a lot more to talk about.

The live chat is up and running. Want to hear from our viewers at AC360.com. Let us know what you think.

We are going to be joined after the break by Roger Spooner, the farmer who 24 years ago was at the heart of this story. We are going to get his take on what Ms. Sherrod -- Sherrod has been saying. And he has known her now nearly a quarter-of-a-century.

Later, how the administration is handling all of this. Is it intimidated on race? David Gergen joins us with what insiders are telling him.

We will be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: Continuing our breaking news coverage, our conversation with Shirley Sherrod, who was forced out of her job at the Agriculture Department right when the clip surfaced.

Yesterday, the story broke. We did what we thought everyone would want to do, get her side of the story. We called her last night, left word for her. She called us back, left this message.

Listen.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

SHERROD: I would love to get the truth out, if that's what you're calling me about.

The thing that FOX has done is a total lie. They -- they misrepresented a story that I told to a group to try to bring people together. I was telling them about a time 24 years ago when I was faced with having to help a white farmer for the first time save a farm, when so many black farmers were losing land.

And I talk about my transformation and how I realized this war is not about race. It's about poor people and those who have vs. those who do not.

And I was encouraging the group to get beyond race.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

COOPER: Shirley Sherrod and the farmer she was talking about on that tape, Roger Spooner, who joins us now from his farm in Iron City, Georgia.

Roger, what did you think when you heard all of these accusations against Ms. Sherrod?

ROGER SPOONER, FARMER HELPED BY SHIRLEY SHERROD: I couldn't believe it. It was unbelievable.

I haven't seen her in maybe 20 years, but she was unbelievable, helpful in every way. She saved our farm. She did. She -- she made contact for us, and we went through a -- what do you call it?

Help me.

COOPER: Was it a bankruptcy?

SPOONER: Bankruptcy, yes. That's what I'm trying to think of.

You all have to be...

(LAUGHTER)

SPOONER: Go along with me, now. I'm soon be 88 years old. I'm...

(LAUGHTER)

COOPER: Well, you're doing all right. You're doing all right.

(CROSSTALK)

SPOONER: I can't remember things -- I can't remember things like I used to a long time ago.

And -- but Ms. Shirley was -- she was -- she knows it, too. They -- this -- all this is, is a bunch of hogwash, in my opinion. Now, it -- she was just as nice to us as anyone could have been. And, as far as racism and all, that's -- it's just ridiculous. She was just -- she went with us...

COOPER: Let me bring in -- let me bring Shirley -- let me bring Shirley back in.

Shirley, you went with them...

SPOONER: All right.

COOPER: ... to an attorney.

What -- how did you help them save their farm?

SHERROD: Well, the first attorney agreed to -- to work with them.

And -- and, as far as I knew, he was doing what he said he would do. But, during that time, there was an injunction against USDA, and they couldn't foreclose on farmers. But that injunction was lifted in May of '87 for two weeks. And Mr. Spooner was one of 13 farmers who was foreclosed in the state of Georgia.

He called me to tell me he had gotten the foreclosure notice. So, I told him to go on and make an appointment with the lawyer, and I would go with him. I did that. The thing that was so appalling...

(CROSSTALK)

SHERROD: ... is, once we got to the lawyer's office and was sitting to there talking to him about it, that lawyer -- that lawyer looked at Mr. and Mrs. Spooner and said, you all are getting old. Why don't you just let the farm go?

I couldn't believe he said it. And I told him that. And I said, it's obvious to me, if he cannot file a Chapter 12, you have to file an 11 to stop the sale.

He said he would do that.

COOPER: So, you ended up taking...

SHERROD: No.

(CROSSTALK)

COOPER: And you ended up going to another attorney because he really didn't follow through...

SHERROD: Right.

COOPER: ... follow through on that. SHERROD: Right.

We were -- we were less...

SPOONER: That's right.

SHERROD: ... than two weeks away from the sale at the courthouse step, when I had to find another lawyer.

Mr. Spooner called me and told me that the first lawyer wasn't doing any work. So, I was frantically calling.

SPOONER: Right.

SHERROD: And I'm connected to -- I was connected to a lot of farm groups around the country.

I called everyone I knew, trying to find a lawyer, and then remembered that I knew a lawyer just 40 miles away. So, I called that lawyer. I had actually gone to that lawyer with some black farmers, and was impressed with his knowledge of Chapter 12.

So, I called him and said, I have a quick case here.

COOPER: Right.

SHERROD: And I explained what was going on, and said, can you take it? And he said, how soon can you all get here? I told him, you tell us. He said, what about tomorrow at 10:00? I said, we will be there. I called...

(CROSSTALK)

COOPER: And I know he was the one -- sorry.

SHERROD: Yes.

COOPER: He was the one who filed the Chapter 11 bankruptcy...

(CROSSTALK)

SHERROD: He filed the 11.

COOPER: ... which ultimately helped. Right.

SHERROD: Yes.

(CROSSTALK)

COOPER: I know -- Ms. Sherrod, I know you haven't seen your former client in a long time. Is there anything you would want to -- to say to Roger?

SHERROD: Oh, you know, I am just so happy to see them. I was -- I was just tickled to death when -- when they were on the show earlier today with me. And -- and I have been promised their phone number.

I -- you all can expect a visit from me, hopefully this week. If not this week, it will be real soon. I seem to have a lot of time to be able to do that. I will come down to see you.

COOPER: Roger Spooner, I appreciate you being on tonight. Thank you very much, Mr. Spooner. I appreciate you staying up late. I know you have had a long day.

SPOONER: Right.

COOPER: Shirley Sherrod, I appreciate you coming on as well to tell your side of the story. I know it's been an extraordinary 24 hours for you. I appreciate you taking the time for us.

SHERROD: Thank you.

COOPER: We are going to talk to the NAACP coming up about why they were so quick to condemn Ms. Sherrod, without actually having all the information. They now say they were snookered by -- by a couple of folks. We are going to talk to them. We will hear from the NAACP president, Ben Jealous, who has got some tough allegations to make about certain bloggers and cable news outlets -- all the angles on that tonight.

We have some tough questions for him also.

Also, more extended excerpts of the tape, so you can decide for yourself what you think about all of this.

We will be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: Back to our breaking news -- the NAACP tonight releasing what it says is the full tape of Shirley Sherrod's statements.

Earlier tonight, the conservative blogger who posted the edited speech of the speech yesterday defended his decision. Andrew Breitbart told CNN that his intention wasn't to suggest that the former USDA was racist. Breitbart insisted he was using it to attack the NAACP, which, in inviting Sherrod to speak at the event, he says, shows it condones racist behavior.

Watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "JOHN KING, USA")

BREITBART: This tape is about the NAACP. Its raison d'etre is about nondiscrimination.

And when Shirley Sherrod is talking there in which she expresses a discriminatory attitude towards white people, the audience responds with applaud -- with applause -- and the NAACP agrees with me. And it rebuked her. (END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: Well, with us now is Benjamin Jealous, president and CEO of the NAACP.

Ben, you said in your statement that the NAACP was snookered by FOX News and Tea Party activist Andrew Breitbart. But nobody held a gun to your head saying you had to put out a statement yesterday, you know, condemning her remarks and supporting her forced resignation.

Why was the NAACP so quick to back up this woman's ouster?

BENJAMIN JEALOUS, PRESIDENT AND CEO, NAACP: And, to quote him, our raison d'etre is to pull this country back together, to deal with this country as it is. And we're very clear, in doing that, that we have a zero-tolerance policy for racial discrimination, no matter who does it, that we believe that civil and human rights should be...

COOPER: But, I mean, did you call her? Did you -- did you see the full tape before you put out that statement?

JEALOUS: We saw a statement that we believed was a condensed version of the truth, that was, you know, shorter than the actual statement, but true.

We responded quickly because, you know, as we do, in this line of work, where we're called to respond to video evidence all the time, make very quick judgments, we made a quick set of calls. It was -- it was late at night -- as you may recall, our statement came out at like 1:00 a.m. -- that we were dealing with this.

We woke up some people in Georgia. We tried to figure out what was going on. We looked at it. And we said, you know what? There's just no way to condone this. What we didn't realize is, it was sliced and diced six ways from Sunday, so as to completely hide this beautiful story of transformation that you see if you go to our Web site and you look at the full video.

COOPER: But here is what critics are saying, and conservative critics especially are saying, is that, look, you guys jumped on this incredibly quickly. They're saying it's about maybe protecting your group or protecting President Obama's administration from some potential attacks by the right.

And, as evidence of that, they say, look, you didn't -- you don't put out a statement immediately condemning the New Black Panther Party when they make incendiary, hateful statements.

JEALOUS: You know, if they had said the things that they said at an NAACP event, we certainly would have.

We're very sensitive to people saying that something was done wrong at one of our events. We have hundreds of these dinners across the country. They're put on by volunteers. And they -- you know, to a one -- I travel to dozens of them each them. They're beautiful events. This one was a beautiful, transformational moment, somebody telling a story that the country needs to hear.

COOPER: So, it was only because -- you're saying it was only -- you're saying it was only because it was at one of your events, that that's why you put out the statement right away, that it -- that -- so, the New Black Panther Party, because they're part of your group, you wouldn't put out a statement?

(CROSSTALK)

JEALOUS: You know, the -- the -- take the Tea Party, for instance. We studied them for months before saying something. We looked into them very seriously.

We're dealing with them because 40 percent of the country says that -- or, at least recently, 40 percent of the country said that they sympathize with them. Seventeen percent say -- say that they actively support them. And they are an insurgent right-wing populist movement with far-right extremist parts to it that we haven't seen the very -- of a type we haven't seen in a very long time.

And what -- and, yet, they have a -- they have a terrific opportunity to lead this country to a better place, as far as conservative politics, if they can just get those extremists out, like they have started to do. So, that's very serious and methodical.

You know, you take a group like the New Black Panther Party that our friends at the Southern Poverty Law Center have spoken on. You know, they say, look, they're a hate group. They have been very clear about that. Everything that they say suggests that's all they are. They are extremely tiny, and they have not spoken at our events, and they have not said these horrible things.

If they did, we would certainly be out there. I have been very clear about condemning them. I mean, one of the things that Mr. Breitbart does is -- is that they don't really have a relationship with the -- the -- the truth, certainly, what we have gone through over the last couple of weeks.

I have condemned the...

COOPER: Well...

JEALOUS: ... New Black Panther Party multiple times. I will do it here tonight.

The things that they have said about killing cracker babies and stuff are horrible, are horrible.

COOPER: The -- he says the reason -- Breitbart says the reason he posted this video, because it -- it points out what he says is a double standard at the NAACP, that, when Ms. Sherrod said things that were offensive, some people in the audience seemed to be agreeing with her, nodding or responding positively.

And, in your original statement, you condemned the response and said you were going to be looking into it. I didn't see in the new statement that you put out anything about concern over -- still concern over that response. Are you still concerned by some of the response of people in the audience?

JEALOUS: You know, the -- look, call and response is part of our culture, and so is testifying, witnessing.

And what's clear, when you look at the whole video, which you can see at NAACP.org, is that somebody has stood up to testify about, you know, when they almost went the wrong way, and they decided to go the right way. And the audience was following that story from beginning to end.

You see it very quickly. She talks about how she actually helped him. We hear them today talking about how she saved the family farm. That's what this story was about. And they knew when this woman got up to talk and the style she was talking, was that she was telling a story about how she almost went the wrong way...

COOPER: Right.

JEALOUS: ... but she ended up going the right way. We hear that in church, you know, frequently.

COOPER: OK. Because I know all about call and response and have been to a lot of meetings and church gatherings where that occurs. It's just in your original statement you did point that out as a problem. I was just wondering if you had any concerns, but clearly, you see it as part of the give and take.

JEALOUS: This is the perception.

COOPER: Right. Just one very brief question. In the videotape that you have put on line, we noticed a dissolve about -- I think about halfway through. Is this the full tape that you had?

JEALOUS: Yes. This is...

COOPER: Was that an actual dissolve.

JEALOUS: Yes, this was the full tape. This is the full tape. We had to FTP it today. We spent hours with it. There may be some tech glitch in there.

COOPER: OK.

JEALOUS: We will receive the hard tape in the morning, and we will upload again from that.

COOPER: Ben Jealous, I appreciate your time. Thank you.

JEALOUS: Thank you, Anderson.

COOPER: We have a lot more ahead. The Raw Politics of race in the age of instant news and blogging. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) COOPER: We're following breaking news tonight. As we said, NAACP has posted what it calls Shirley Sherrod's full remarks from March. The speech is a little more than 43 minutes long. Forty-three minutes, a lot of context.

We want to play another clip from the speech right now. Shirley Sherrod, in her own words. The clip starts with her describing how working with a white farmer she was initially reluctant to help ended up impacting her life and changing her world view. Take a look.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SHERROD: It's really about those who have versus those who don't.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's right. That's right.

SHERROD: You know, and they could be black. They could be white. They could be Hispanic. And it made me realize then that I needed to work to help poor people, those who don't have access the way others have.

I want to just share something with you, and I think it helps to -- you know, when I learned this, I'm like, oh, my goodness. You know, back in the late 17th and 18th century, black -- there were black indentured servants and white indentured servants, and they all would work for the seven years and get their freedom. And they didn't see any difference in each other. Nobody worried about skin color. They married each other, you know. These were poor whites and poor blacks in the same boat. They were slaves, but they were both slaves and both had the opportunity to work out of slavery.

But then they started looking at the injustices that they faced and started then trying -- you know, the people with money, you know, they started, the poor whites and poor blacks, they married each other and lived together. They were just like we would be. And they started looking at what was happening to them and decided, "We need to do something about it, you know, about this."

Well, the people with money, the elite, decided, "Hey, we need to do something here to divide them." So, that's when they made black people servants for life. That's when they put laws in place forbidding them to marry each other. That's when they created the racism that we know of today. They did it to keep us divided. And they -- it started working so well, they said, "Gosh, we've really come upon something here that could last generations."

And here we are, over 400 years later, and it's still working. What we have to do is get that out of our heads. There is no difference between us.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: Well, you've heard Shirley Sherrod say the push for her to step down from her post of the USDA came from the Obama administration. That's what she was told. The White House denies it played a role. And you've heard the secretary of agriculture, Tom Vilsack, say he asked for the resignation without consulting the White House.

Let's talk about the "Raw Politics," though. Joining me now, Boyce Watkins, a professor at Syracuse University, and senior political analyst David Gergen and Joe Johns.

David, given what we now know, should Ms. Sherrod have been forced to resign?

DAVID GERGEN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Absolutely not. Absolutely not. Anderson, this has ripped away the veil and shown us all that is wrong with politics today. An ideologue injects poison into the Internet. Other people rush to judgment on camera. And then an administration gets stampeded and commits this travesty of justice.

What is needed now, the NAACP has at least had the courage to come back and say, "We were wrong and apologize." Now the administration needs to do the same thing. The president tonight ought to order the Agriculture Department to reopen this case, give this woman a fair hearing and, if the facts are as they seem, reinstate her with an apology. Indeed, I think she deserves a whole lot more than an apology. I think she deserves honor for her attempts to bring people together.

COOPER: Professor Watkins, what do you make of this? I mean, and especially the quickness with which the Obama administration moved or the Agriculture Department, at least, moved to distance them from her?

BOYCE WATKINS, PROFESSOR, SYRACUSE UNIVERSITY: Yes. We have to think about the irony of the situation. The individual who was honest enough to accurately and humbly reflect on her experience and her transformation as it relates to racism, she's the one who gets fired, and the individuals who were incompetent enough to fire her without looking at the evidence, to force her to text on a BlackBerry her letter of resignation are the ones who are still running our government.

I think that Ms. Sherrod, she deserves apologies from everybody across the board, starting with Secretary Vilsack, starting with Undersecretary Cook, going to the NAACP. She deserves an apology from the White House. And even I want to apologize to her, because I believed the evidence when I saw it. And I -- even I've learned something from this.

So I think that really, we have to think about the fact that she was fired so quickly while you have other individuals like Joe Biden, Harry Reid and others who have said racially inciteful things who weren't dismissed or even disciplined.

So long story short, we're all learning from this, and -- and this is just an ugly situation.

COOPER: Joe, you've been chasing down the Department of Agriculture's side of the story, which is that the White House didn't make the call on this. Does that actually hold up, though?

JOE JOHNS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It does. I mean, frankly, from what you can -- I can tell, in talking to various individuals inside the department, also on the record, it seems pretty clear that Secretary Vilsack looked at this thing and said, "It doesn't matter what she said in the portions of the tape that I'm not hearing." What she said there, state of mind, this is the kind of thing that affects a department that has had literally thousands of discrimination lawsuits. This department is notorious for that kind of problem, and he's trying to clean it up.

He says, "This doesn't help. This is going to affect her job. I don't think she's a racist, but she's got to go because it's a problem." And -- and that's what he did. Good or bad, right or wrong, he got rid of her, because it was an administrative decision.

COOPER: It all seems incumbent, though, on the mistaken idea that all of this came while she was employed by the department, not something that happened, you know, 24 years ago.

David, Boyce, Joe, stay right there. We're going to talk more about all this right after the break.

Also ahead tonight, the BP spill and why a new plan to kill the well could leave us never knowing how much oil flowed from the well. And breaking news tonight: reports out of England that the CEO, Tony Hayward, may be stepping down. BP denies it. Details on that ahead.

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COOPER: We're talking about race, perception, in the age of instant news and blogging. Shirley Sherrod's resignation the latest example of what the stakes can be.

Joining me again, Boyce Watkins, David Gergen and Joe Johns.

David, I mean, is what we're seeing now, this war of words over racism between the Tea Party movement and the NAACP, is this a sign of more dangerous things to come?

GERGEN: It could well be, Anderson. We're in hard times. And our feelings get very raw when you're in hard times. It's possible it's going to get worse. The Tea Party, NAACP fight has been very unfortunate. We've had a lot of unfortunate things about President Obama.

Let me just say one more thing. The important thing about people in high positions in government is not whether they make mistakes. I've made plenty of mistakes in government, one to this day that I regret that was about race.

The important thing is, when you make a mistake, correct for it very quickly. And that's what the White House needs to do now. They need to correct this injustice and let us move on, because they cannot allow this woman to remain fired if these facts bear out. COOPER: Joe, any sign that they may reverse themselves? I mean, it seems hard to believe that there wouldn't be some, you know, further steps that could happen.

JOHNS: Yes. I mean, you would think that she would get a hearing or something. But as I understand it, she's a political appointee, meaning she serves at the pleasure of the president. And I asked again and again and again, behind closed doors today, is there any chance somebody is going to revisit this thing? And I haven't been told by a single person that they're actually going to take another look at it. So it doesn't look like it's turning out so well for her. It sounds like she's sort of becoming a victim.

COOPER: Professor Watkins, I mean, does this kind of thing -- you know, you talk about this as a teaching moment for everybody involved. But I mean, is this the kind of thing that says we need to discuss race more or that we need to discuss it less? Because here's a woman who was discussing it and in an open way and apparently talking about how her feelings have evolved over the years, and she ends up fired.

WATKINS: Let's think about the lesson that has been taught so far, Anderson. The lesson is that, if you talk about race and if you're honest about it, even if you're expressing a transformative moment as Ms. Sherrod was, you'll be punished for that. That's not the lesson that we want people to learn.

We want people to learn that the healing, the racial healing in America, that must occur, it requires us to be honest and to be humble in terms of how we're perceived. That means that we have to be humble enough to apologize when we're wrong. And I apologize to Ms. Sherrod, and I'm not a politician. I'm not going to let the issue die. When I talk to Al Sharpton in a couple days, I'm going to keep pushing this issue, because that woman does not deserve to be fired, and that is the bottom line.

COOPER: Boyce Watkins, David Gergen, Joe Johns, appreciate all your perspectives tonight. Thank you.

Joe, I know we're keeping you very busy. Joe, you've also got some other news in our "360 News & Business Bulletin." What have you got?

JOHNS: That's right, Anderson.

President Obama met with British Prime Minister David Cameron at the White House today. Cameron said he completely understands that Americans are angry about the BP oil spill. He added it's BP's role to cap the leak and compensate people. Both leaders also condemned Scotland for releasing the Pan Am Flight 103 bomber last year.

By a vote of 60-40, the Senate moved one step closer to restoring benefits to millions of Americans who have been unemployed for at least six months. New West Virginia Senator Carte Goodwin gave Democrats the votes needed to break the filibuster. That final vote could come as early as tomorrow. And in case you've been on another planet, Lindsay Lohan began her sentence today for violating probation. A judge ordered the actress to spend 90 days behind bars, but she is expected to be released in a few weeks. And, hopefully, thus ends the saga of Lindsay's lock up.

COOPER: Yes. Let's hope.

Up next, Joe, breaking news. The report that BP CEO Tony Hayward is preparing to step down. Plus our attempts to get answers from BP about that and about the oil spill flow rate in the Gulf, answers that could cost the company tens of billions of dollars. We're "Keeping Them Honest."

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COOPER: Breaking news that's hitting home here in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast. The "Times of London" citing unnamed sources that say BP CEO Tony Hayward is preparing to step down in the next 10 weeks. CNN has not confirmed this report, and when we asked BP for comment, the company told us, quote, "There's no truth to the article."

Hayward, of course, was the public face of BP when the well blew 92 days ago. He was the one who made a series of PR gaffes when everyone, including us, were just looking for information, just straight answers about what's really going on down here.

Sadly, 92 days in, not a lot has changed. We're still getting the runaround and resistance from BP and, at times, the government.

Here's what we wanted to know today. It's about the plan to permanently seal off the well, an operation called static kill. That means BP wants to pump mud through lines into the blow-out preventer, killing the well. But once they do that, we'll never get a chance to, once and for all, measure the flow rate of the oil. And that could be a huge difference when determining how much BP will be charged for the spill. We're talking about possibly tens of billions of dollars difference.

Now, if BP can send mud down into the well, some experts are asking, can it bring the oil up through those lines into ships to actually measure the flow rate? Well, we called BP to get some answers on the flow rate and what it means for the company's liability. A spokesman said the government is determining the flow rate and told us the question should go to the unified command. The spokesman also said BP is cooperating with the government.

When asked why BP won't comment on possible fines or how those fines are being determined, the spokesman hung up on us. Not the first time.

We then called unified command. In fact, we called them three times, asking to speak to Thad Allen or a spokesman about the fines and flow rate. We were told they had to, quote, "kick it upstairs" to senior officials for those questions to be answered. We were promised someone would get back to us. We're still waiting. Any time.

Joining me now is Douglas Brinkley.

Doug, what do you make of these reports. Again, we have not been able to confirm these reports. BP is flat out denying them, but these English reports, "Times of London" saying Hayward is going to be resigning?

DOUGLAS BRINKLEY, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: "Times of London" is quite definitive about it. And as you point out, BP denies it. But BP denies everything, and they simply just lie. So it very well could be true. We'll have to see.

But you know, Tony Hayward is -- BP is planning in August to have what they're calling future BP, just like British Petroleum turned to BP. Now it's future BP, meaning post spill, and how do you handle things?

And getting rid of Tony Hayward makes some sense. I mean, anywhere he goes in the world except for the petroleum club, he's basically getting hissed by people. He's become the villain, the Darth Vader of the BP spill. And I can't see much of a future for the company with him doing the business.

So whether the report's true or not, we'll have to wait and see. But the "London Times," like our "New York Times," is usually pretty accurate on these things. And we'll know probably in a few weeks.

COOPER: It is interesting when you track this, I mean, how Tony Hayward was the face of this, right? He was on the commercials. And then he just, one after another, kept putting his foot in his mouth, saying things which were deeply offensive while he was trying to apologize or say things which sounded nice. They ended up just offending huge amounts of people.

And then after that White House meeting with President Obama, you had the chairman of the board -- I forget his name off the top of my head. I believe he's Swiss or Swedish, came out and said that he was going to be now more of the face, more of the public face of BP. And in his first public statement he said that thing about small people, you know, about BP cares about small people. And then he sort of zapped away to the cave where they were hiding Tony Hayward, was never to be seen again.

And now it's -- you know, it's Bob Dudley, who is sort of the public face of BP, along with Doug Suttles. It's amazing how tone -- for a company that has, you know, some 23,000 employees, I think, in the Gulf, how tone deaf they have been in their public relations throughout this.

BRINKLEY: Exactly. And I think, you know, years from now, people are going to be studying how to do a crisis management classes, and BP's done everything wrong.

Tony Hayward's immediate reaction to all this was defensive. And they went in cover-up mode. They wouldn't verify anything, and they started virtually misleading people. At this point, I don't think anybody thinks Tony Hayward did a good job. Why possibly would he stay on his job?

And you know, this is -- it's unfortunate, because what we never felt from BP was the heart, that here, people died in the Deepwater Horizon incident. A whole region struck. They always seem to be spinning us that it wasn't their fault. If you remember, the finger pointing with the other companies.

COOPER: Right.

BRINKLEY: And President Obama then had to come in and say, you know, this is ridiculous behavior. It's been a joke since the beginning with Hayward. And he's going to go, whether it's in August or September. No company can have a future with Tony Hayward as their -- as their lead.

COOPER: What do you make of the fact that, if the cap stays on, if they make no effort to actually, you know, let oil flow for a day and see how much comes out, that we may never know the exact flow rate of the oil?

BRINKLEY: That's what the history is going to show this whole story has been. BP has been trying to not let people know the flow rate. The higher the flow rate, the more money BP pays. End of story. It's that simple.

So, we're having a United States government that would like to get an accurate figure. But BP is doing everything they can to obfuscate that number so they don't have to pay as much.

And I hope that the -- that our Justice Department really gets into the cover-up of BP, because it's not just that they have faulty engineering and we have the blow-out preventer and all the drama. It's been the cover-up and the lies that they've told in the public sphere about the flow rate that essentially is trying to take money that belongs to the American people away from them.

We are just at the beginning of the BP legal saga. And Tony Hayward, at some point, will be appearing in front of courts.

COOPER: And obviously, there's still going to be a lot of finger pointing still to come. Doug Brinkley, appreciate you coming in late for us. Thank you very much.

BRINKLEY: Thanks, Anderson.

COOPER: We've got a lot more ahead. More news at the top of the hour, starting with the breaking news. A striking turnabout for the woman who lost her job over remarks that sounded racist until you, well, listen to the entire remarks. We've got the entire remarks, the context for you, plus interviews with the people involved on all sides of what has become a national controversy. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) COOPER: It's day 92 of the BP disaster. We're going to have the latest on the spill and reports that BP CEO Tony Hayward may be stepping down.