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Dr. Mary Frances  Berry

Dr. Mary Frances Berry

Author, Activist, Educator & Historian

Dr. Mary Frances Berry

Author, Activist, Educator & Historian


For more than four decades, Dr. Mary Frances Berry has been one of the most visible and respected activists in the cause of civil rights, gender equality and social justice. Serving as Chairperson of the US Civil Rights Commission, Dr. Berry led the charge for equal rights and liberties for all Americans over the course of four Presidential administrations. A trailblazer for women and African-Americans alike, she also became the first woman of any race to head a major research university as Chancellor of the University of Colorado at Boulder. She is the Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought and Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania, where she teaches the history of American law and the history of law and social policy.

Dr. Berry made history as one of the founders of the monumental Free South Africa Movement (FSAM). She received the Nelson Mandela award from the South African Government for her role in organizing the FSAM, raising global awareness of South African injustice that helped to end over 40 years of apartheid. She also served as Assistant Secretary for Education in the US Department of Health, Education and Welfare, working to make these historically inequitable systems achieve a new level of fairness. A prolific author, Dr. Berry’s books cover a wide range of subjects, from the history of constitutional racism in America to the history of progressive activism. Her latest  book, History Teaches Us to Resist: How Progressive Movements Have Succeeded in Challenging Times, examines the successful tactics of movements that ended the Vietnam War, jumpstarted government response to the AIDS epidemic, championed the Americans with Disabilities Act and advanced civil, women’s and LGBTQ rights—all of which she was a part of.  Her previous book, Power in Words: The Stories behind Barack Obama’s Speeches, from the State House to the White House, offers insight and historical context of President Obama’s most memorable speeches.

A moving speaker who makes history come alive, Dr. Berry believes that each generation has the responsibility to make a dent in the wall of injustice. She continues to speak boldly for those who can’t speak for themselves and motivates all of us to take action. Her clarion call challenges everyone to stand up, stand tall and to never give up the fight.

Speaker Videos

History Teaches Us to Resist and the Power of Protest | The Daily Show

On BLM and the Importance of Protest

Speech Topics

Mary Frances Berry’s Strategy Handbook for Political Change

People who want to engage effectively in political and social change should make sure they understand the history of their issues. Failure to evaluate the past can lead to preventable missteps that might be preventable, and even set the movement back. Though we might now focus on President Trump or President Biden, they are certainly not the only presidents to oppose progressive issues and policies. In fact, Presidents Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Lyndon Baines Johnson, and Bill Clinton opposed policies ranging from desegregation of the military to ending the Vietnam War to marriage equality. A willingness to listen to all points of view and acknowledging differences is essential to resolving issues of political and social policy.

Drawing from her latest book, History Teaches Us to Resist: How Progressive Movements Have Succeeded in Challenging Times, Mary Frances Berry shares the winning tactics of successful movements that ended the Vietnam War, jumpstarted the government’s response to the AIDS epidemic, championed the Americans with Disabilities Act and advanced civil, women’s and LGBTQ rights—all of which she participated in. Speaking as both a renowned historian and courageous activist who has locked arms at sit-ins and served time in jail, Dr. Berry chronicles more than 50 years of progressive victories, the winning tactics behind them, and analyzes why some movements failed. Believing that “people shouldn’t think that they can’t succeed now,” or that success is automatic, she reveals what works, what doesn’t—and what we all must do to achieve change in our communities, country, and world. Each generation must make its own dent in the wall of injustice.

Protest As an Essential Ingredient of Politics: Making Choices Includes Taking Risks

Nonviolent advocates of social and political change should not be surprised by criticism and retaliation. The First Amendment guarantees the right to engage in advocacy and non-violent protest and protects us from government retaliation. Despite these basic democratic rights, government agents and nongovernmental actors can punish protest, sometimes by invoking their own right to free speech, to maintain the status quo. The ACLU’s recent decision to represent the advocacy rights of the National Rifle Association in NRA v Vullo on First Amendment grounds is controversial. Even though the ACLU does not agree with the NRA’s political positions, there will be sustained criticism and threats to withdraw funding.

The ACLU’s current work reminds us of past struggles. Civil rights protesters were jailed, abused, and sometimes killed by opponents of the movement. Protests against the Vietnam War were met with retaliation: protestors found their draft deferments revoked, were subjected to government surveillance and arrests, even killed at Kent State and Jackson State. These were American divisions during the War.

Dr. Berry’s believes that voting must be combined with other forms of political participation to resolve contested social problems. Nonviolent direct action is essential to reinforce the ballot. Some people cannot vote: they are disenfranchised by age, criminal records, impermanent housing, or lack of American citizenship. And some problems, opposition to war and violence or government programs to help the poor, or addressing climate change, demand nonviolent direct action. Holding government officials accountable requires more than voting every four years on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November.

Martin Luther King’s four questions remind us all what is at stake:

  • Cowardice asks, is it safe?
  • Expediency asks, is it politic?
  • Vanity asks, is it popular?
  • But conscience asks, is it right?

Is Diversity & Inclusion Over: Is Now Really the Time?

When the Supreme Court decided that taking race into account as a remedy for racial disparities is unconstitutional in the 2023 Harvard and University of North Carolina admissions cases, it seemed to finally have demolished a weak but at least somewhat effective way of ending. racial inequality. However, the story continues. From Berry’s work in the Nixon administration developing goals and timetables for affirmative action on hiring women and contractors of color to desegregation issues as chief U.S. education official during the Carter administration and then-President Bill Clinton’s appointing her as the first chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in 1993, she has been very much involved in the history of affirmative action and diversity. Access to quality higher education became a major goal of the civil rights movement pressed on politicians. When Martin Luther King was assassinated predominantly white colleges and universities began to admit more black students opposition to affirmative action as reverse discrimination against whites became even more heated. When the Supreme Court decided the Bakke case in 1978 officially ended affirmative action replacing it with diversity DEI became the new form of racial remedies story. For reasons of morality, demography, and because having quality education as a goal and the economic needs of serving clients and political constitutions and the perpetual search for an orderly society, labels may change but the search for civil rights remedies for racial inequality is not over.

“Repairing the Past”: Confronting the Legacies of Slavery

Throughout the world people and nations are engaged in determining remedies for evils visited upon others in their midst for invidious reasons such as caste, race, religion or nationality. The effort to achieve reparative justice will continue here in the United States and around the world not just because the Berry has been very much involved in struggles to right wrongs that paved the way for remedies. Her 2004 book My Face is Black is True: Callie house and the Struggle for Ex-Slave Pensions, resurrected the story of the first known black reparations movement in the United States led in the late 19th century by a freedwoman whose pleas landed her in federal penitentiary as a troublemaker. She is preparing the publication of another book on Repairing the Legacy of Forced Child Apprenticeships on Black Families 1865 to the Present.

Internationally, Berry was one of the leaders of the successful struggle to end apartheid in South Africa which pressed for remedying the inequality black South Africans endured. She was in South Africa, meeting with Mandela on the day of his release from jail and in this country on his first visit. She also spoke for the movement in the United States at his memorial service at the Washington Cathedral in December 2013.

Race, Gender, Protest & Politics: Where Do We Go From Here

Rather than lose hope because of the complexities of our civil and human rights problems, as Jesse Jackson, one the “men who were with Martin” as Coretta Scott King would call them said: we must “Keep Hope Alive.” Coretta Scott King and I over the years considered why Martin Luther King in 1963 had emphasized the “fierce urgency of now;” that “This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. “But by 1967, though he understood that some progress had been made on issues of inequality he agonized over the loss of hope and perpetuation of racial discrimination north and south indeed all over the country. He despaired over the failure of government and unregulated capitalism to address community economic needs. That is Why he thought the multiracial Poor People’s Campaign of direct action was needed. So, in his last book Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community he wrote: ”The good and just society is neither the thesis of capitalism nor the antithesis of Communism, but a socially conscious democracy which reconciles the truths of individualism and collectivism.” The work required, the insight and hope he called for is more needed today in this time of division and myriad crises and challenges.