Lessons from Dr. Mary Frances Berry


"What I learned, in all the things that I have done, led me to more things to do," renowned activist, author and academic Dr. Mary Frances Berry told a rapt audience gathered in the Center for the Arts theater on Thursday.

Chronicling the highlights of those incredible forty-plus years fighting for civil rights, gender equality and social justice, the former Chairperson of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, and former Assistant Secretary for Education in the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare — who holds 35 honorary doctoral degrees, grabbed the entire student body's attention on March 31 and held on to it for about 45 minutes sharing moving memories, inspiring anecdotes and moments of wry humor.

"It was great to have Dr. Berry address our community and share her extensive lived experiences as it relates to civil rights and the power of protest," said Director of Multicultural Affairs and Outreach and Assistant Director of Admission Kenya Jones (below on left with Berry).

Jones and the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion team sought out Berry as a speaker because of her impressive experience working for equality and inspiring others. Her visit was all the more remarkable for Brooks considering that, as she admitted on stage, she doesn't often address high school students.

"Our hope was to bring someone in who could talk about the Free South Africa Movement and connect to our All-Community Read "Born A Crime" by Trevor Noah," said Jones, who described Dr. Berry as "a true historian in every sense of the word."

Her dedication to social justice, he added, "could be palpably felt during her keynote."

Dr. Berry — currently a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania (where she teaches the history of American law and the history of law and social policy) — framed her talk around the lessons she learned from protesting and working to make change inside and outside of the U.S. government.

Offering up her own life as an example, she began, "I will try to tell you how I came to do the stuff that I've done . . . and what it has to do with what is going on now."

Born shortly before the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement, the 84-year-old spoke about being inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and her mother, who she said often encouraged her to "get off your do-nothing stool and go do something" about issues she faced.

During the war in Vietnam, Berry described how she talked her way into the country to work as a freelance war correspondent so that she could better understand what was happening.

Teaching positions at the University of Maryland, where she served as Provost, and at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where she served as the first black woman Chancellor, led to her appointment as assistant secretary for education in the Department of Health, Education and Welfare by President Jimmy Carter, who also appointed her to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission.

But it was her work founding, leading and getting arrested for the Free South Africa Movement (which aimed to get the United States to level sanctions against South Africa to help end apartheid in the country), starting in 1984, that Berry discussed in depth during her talk. "Protest," she said, "does change things."

"If you want to make something change, you have to disrupt," she added. "Disruption is necessary to make social change, non-violent social change. . . . If you don't, then people who have power won't pay that much attention to you."

Discussing the realities of organizing and persisting in protest, Berry detailed how she and her team met every morning for a year and a half. "The media knew that every day at five o'clock there would either be people getting arrested or a huge number of people or celebrities," she said, revealing the group's strategies to keep attention on the issue. "And then we did marches and all kinds of things and on the college campuses."

Finally, "we ended up with bipartisan [support] voting for a comprehensive sanctions bill . . . and then President Reagan vetoed it, after we had done all that work," she recalled. "What did we do? Did we go somewhere and cry? No. We started meeting again and protesting."

"Persistence is necessary if you want to do anything," Berry declared, "because people always think you're going to go away. ...People always think they can outlast you."

Yet she emphasized that to make lasting change you have to be strategic, as well. "It doesn't help people you're trying to help if you're not strategic," she said. "You decide you're going to help ... and you don't spend the time trying to figure out what would work, what wouldn't work [you will end in failure]."

Berry, of course, persisted with her efforts to end apartheid in South Africa. And of witnessing Nelson Mandela's 1990 release from prison in South Africa, she said, "We were shocked . . . My gosh look at him! We hadn't seen him in 27 years! ... And we had a great conversation."

"Freedom," she noted toward the end of her talk, before a brief question-and-answer period then dessert reception, "is a constant struggle."

Encouraging others to follow in her path, Berry wrapped up her remarks with an inspiring call to action.

"I would hope that whatever you do with your lives," she said, "some of you would take up the cause of social justice so you don't have each generation keep fighting the same battles over and over and over again."

Learn more about Brooks School's All-Community Read about apartheid, "Born a Crime," by Trevor Noah.

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