Civil Rights Activist Shares Lessons on ‘Race, Protests and Politics’

“We Stand Together,” a national coalition of university leaders dedicated to eradicating discrimination and racism, recently invited civil rights activist and author Mary Frances Berry to speak virtually to members of university campuses across the nation. The coalition was founded in 2020 by Cal State Fullerton President Fram Virjee.

The Geraldine R. Segal Professor Emerita of American Social Thought and professor of history and Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania spoke on “Race, Protests and Politics: Where Do We Go From Here?” from the University of Maryland Eastern Shore.

Since her college years at Howard University, Berry has written articles, speeches and books focused on racism and civil rights. As a leader in education and politics, her accomplishments include heading a major research university, serving as the principal education official of the former US Department of Health, Education and Welfare, and receiving dozens of honors from around the world.

“The time when you need to do something is when no one else is willing to do it, when people are saying it can’t be done.”

—Mary Frances Berry

“I was appointed assistant secretary of education by President Jimmy (Carter) and worked closely with the National Organization of Black Colleges,” Berry said. “Working with the presidents of historically Black colleges and universities, I brought their concerns to the White House and an advisory committee was established. Carter also appointed me to the US Commission on Civil Rights, a bipartisan agency that monitors the enforcement of civil rights laws.

“Commissions and settlements sound good, but let me help you understand where we go from here,” she explained. “Consider the plight of Black farmers. They were systematically mistreated by the Department of Agriculture with no loans, loss of property and so on. The Civil Rights Commission looked at the decline of Black farming in America and said the Department of Agriculture should address the differences in treatment between Black and white farmers. But they didn’t really do anything. Finally, Black farmers went to court and got a settlement.

“You think a settlement means everything is fine? No! Everything isn’t fine. A few dollars were sent out, but many farmers were considered ineligible. Black farmers lobbied and pressured Congress to appropriate money to the descendants of Black farmers. But they didn’t get money and are being sued by white folks who said that it discriminates against whites.

“In telling this story, when you consider the topic of race and protest, realize that a lot can happen when various crises occur. We saw a change in public attitudes after the George Floyd murder and the reports of mass incarceration of Blacks. Then came the backlash. You need to keep your foot on the pedal to get things done. Keep on the case.

“Freedom, my friends, is a constant struggle,” reflected Berry. “White supremacy and racist capitalism are still here. So what is it that we want? They want the rhetoric in the preamble of the Constitution to become reality for all people. We’ve made some progress, but we have not come as far as we had hoped and there are barriers.

“Whenever I complained, my mother would say, ‘Get up off your do-nothing stool and stop complaining about it to me.’ In other words, do something! Recently, I looked back at some notes from a 2016 gathering where I met with Black women. Every problem they described is still here. For instance, the minimum wage. Fifty percent of Black people make less than minimum wage. Large numbers are just barely making minimum wage.

“Child care! Look at these poor women: Many first responders and essential workers are women of color. We need more money for child care so they can work and we need more money for the child care workers, too.

“Help and reduction of student loans is another problem,” added Berry. “Look at people. See people. I see them. I ride the bus because poor people ride the bus … to work, to buy groceries, Black women with little children, dragging them along to go shopping. Black people often live in food deserts so they need to travel to stores. The kids are tired and crying. I try to help them on and off the bus. I see people. We should all see them and help when you can.

“I recently went to a church meeting and there was a group of bicyclists who were supposed to tell us about climate change. They advocated using bicycles instead of cars and when they finished, they waited for applause. Then, an elderly lady said, ‘You know we had to move out of the area where this church, built by our people after slavery, is because folks wanted to develop the area? So, we have to drive here to come to church. We can’t bike here.

“So where are all the programs for the poor? What about childcare? Inflation? Food shortages? I see lots of empty shelves and high prices. I’m a person of peace. Can someone explain to me why these things are happening and why people are suffering?

“History teaches us to resist. We all marched to get the right to vote. We have it. We won it. We need to keep it. Now, many want to make it harder to vote. What do you do once the vote is done? You should remain active.”

“Power concedes nothing without a demand.”

— Frederick Douglass

“When President Trump was elected, things went downhill for the poor,” said Berry. “Organizing and protesting are essential. Once the vote is done, we should always celebrate the positive, but in the meanwhile, we need to make sure goals are achieved — helping the poor, eliminating racism and so on.

“We have a divided Congress. I think many elected officials believe that if they don’t emphasize anything — don’t push people or disrupt, that they can do what they want. Often, they’ll do whatever the people who give them the most money want. If you are not willing to put yourself on the line and push, they will ignore you. The leaders will make you think that all you have to do is vote and they’ll do what you want — too many people have different wants. You’ve got to push.

“I’ve heard that suffering builds character … but not all the time.”

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