A Conversation with Civil Rights Activist Dr. Mary Frances Berry

Jan 27, 2017

Dr. Mary Frances Berry

 Dr. Mary Frances Berry a highly regarded author and civil rights activist was this year's keynote speaker for the annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. celebration. Berry's activism in the early 80s was spent fighting against the apartheid in South Africa. She was even arrested a few times for her efforts. But her call to activism started with another civil rights icon Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and that's where our conversation begins.


Interview Highlights

 Lewis-Thompson: Since we're celebrating the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. We have to talk about what he represented, which was change through an approach of nonviolence during the civil rights movement. And even now his legacy continues to transcend across multiple generations. Why do you think that is?


Berry: Well the tactic of using nonviolence worked because it has moral authority and that it does not seek to punish anybody in particular. There's no violence involved or assault. And it also comes from a spiritual base. Martin Luther King was a spiritual man. He was a preacher and he was a spiritual man in addition to being what I call a race man, a poverty man, a believer in justice of all kinds. So that there is a moral authority about being willing to put yourself at risk. This has been done in other countries. He and Coretta, his wife, got these ideas from the philosophy of people like Gandhi and others. The idea is that you put yourself at risk, you put yourself on the line, and when you are attacked undermined you simply take it and move on. And you make sure that the issues that you're talking about are about fairness and justice and have a basis. And the moral authority of it in a sense makes the persons or the institutions that you are resisting or where you're trying to get a change eventually the change comes some change comes. It's reform by example, by pressure, and by willing to bear risk.


Lewis-Thompson: Well this leads me to the next question. How has Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. been influential in your life?


Berry: The assassination of Martin Luther King--the day that happened I now recall in retrospect is the day that I became ever more committed to working on issues of justice. And over the years I spent time talking with Coretta from that day until the day she passed away until she got sick, talking about these issues. And every cause where injustice has been perceived or experienced I've tried to do what I could to ameliorate the problem. And so he was an enormous and remains an enormous influence in my own life. The fact that he was cut down so young too when there he is we will never know what he would look like if he were an old man, because I was thinking about that when Mandela got out of prison and we were able to see what he looked like after all those years of having a picture of him when he was young that we'd never see that with Martin Luther King. He was martyred in the cause, and he was not a perfect man, but he was a committed man and he was willing to sacrifice.


Lewis-Thompson: Now that being said in 2009 President Barack Obama became the surrogate of that change. He became the first president of color and many believed that he would you know as a result of him becoming our president, racism in America would phase out. But obviously that's not the case. From your own research and experience throughout the years, can you explain why it hasn't gone that way?


Berry: Well first of all there are some historians who believe he was not our first president of color that there were other presidents who had some racial background which we do not acknowledge or mention. But I won't get into that. Let's assume he was and the reason why he didn't end racism is because his election was not about ending racism. In fact his election I spent a lot of time commenting on the election in 2008 on the television almost every night during the race. And it was clear that some people were voting for him because they wanted a black president, and some people were voting for him because their children wanted a black president. And some people were voting for him not because they thought he was going to change the country and racism would end but that it was a symbol of how far we had come and then we could brag about you know how far we've come as a country. Not that anyone in particular had meant to do anything. And I think Martin Luther King would be the first person to say that symbolism is important. And his election, Barack Obama's election was important, but the most important thing is what you do about the social problems that exist to create justice. And many of the people who resisted him, Obama, and some people who voted for him who then went away and thought that "oh well now we voted for him. Everything's fine. Or we can tell everybody everything is fine." And there was continued resistance from day one by people in the Congress and elsewhere who said that they didn't plan to do anything, except figure out a way to get rid of him in the end. So his election was important symbolically. But all that talk about how we're going to be post-racial, I never engaged in that kind of discussion. [I] didn't believe it. And electing him-- he was elected in part because though he is a black man chooses to be a black man that he in fact has all of the credentials that anyone would expect and better than most people who have been president of the United States. So no one can say he isn't qualified to be president of the United States. And so therefore he could as Joe Biden who is the vice president of course said during the campaign that Obama was clean and articulate and he's more than that. And so I never expected racism to go away. In fact, I expected it to increase and it probably did if the polls are right. But we never know if they're right, because they weren't right about the election.


Lewis-Thompson: Well is it possible for us to enter into a place where racism is on the decline where it's where it's something that we have learned from. And we are. Actively trying to change it rather than just talking about it.


Berry: Well every time some episode occurs that is particularly horrendous around race all of the media and many of the pundits start talking about how we need a national conversation on race. And I don't think we need a conversation. What we need is reconciliation. In South Africa not everything is perfect and there are severe economic problems there since the end of apartheid, because the deal that was made to get rid of it. But in any case they had a reconciliation commission. And other countries have done that, in which people who had done evil things got up and confessed in public to what they had done and how they were sorry. And people talked to each other and people then forgave them. And in some cases, we probably need a reconciliation kind of conversation and not a conversation about race as such. Usually when we have a conversation about race the only people who engage in it are people who are already trying not to be anti-racist.