Mary Frances Berry, notable civil rights activist, visits campus as keynote speaker

Berry described her long career in politics and civil rights during a presentation celebrating the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. 


Austin Patterson, The Exponent

As part of Baldwin Wallace’s M.L.K. Week celebrating the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., Mary Frances Berry, currently a professor of American social thought at the University of Pennsylvania, presented the keynote address on Jan. 19. 

Berry is an African American civil rights activist, historian, professor, lawyer and writer known for her work in education and public policy.  

At the end of her speech to the BW community, Berry said that although there is still work to be done regarding equal rights for everyone in the United States, she trusts that the younger generations will still fight for equality.  

“Jimmy Baldwin always said – he wrote in his book ‘The Fire Next Time’that if we’re gonna make social change in this country and achieve Martin’s beloved community, somebody’s gotta go through the fire,” Berry said. “There’s gotta be a generation that goes. And I say that each generation must make a dent in the wall of injustice.” 

Although she said the changes she made is enough for her time, she said there will always be work to do which is up to the younger generations to accomplish.  

“I’ve given up thinking that I’m gonna change the world before I die,” Berry said. “When I was young, I said, ‘I’m gonna change the world, the whole world, I’m gonna be great, I’m gonna do all these amazing things.’ No. Just incremental change. I will accept incremental change and knowing that someday, we will have a beloved community. And we will be able to make liberty and justice a reality for all.” 

Berry was the first black woman chancellor at a tier-one research university at the University of Colorado before becoming assistant secretary of education under President Carter in 1977. Subsequently, she became a professor of history and law at Howard University before being appointed to the United States Civil Rights Commission in 1980 under the Ronald Reagan administration. In 1984, Berry co-founded the Free South Africa Movement, dedicated to ending apartheid in South Africa. Berry has also received two N.A.A.C.P. awards and multiple other awards celebrating her work in public service and civil rights.  

Ericka Walker-Smith, the director of inclusion programs & community development, said inviting Berry to speak on campus was a well thought out choice. 

“We wanted to bring speakers to campus who directly relate to Dr. Martin Luther King and his legacy,” Walker-Smith said. “Her time, her work in civil rights, not only her work in the Civil Rights Commission, but also her work with other civil rights activists. She was a natural choice.” 

Courtney Robinson, the programs manager of the multicultural student success and retention initiatives said Berry was a great choice for college students.  

“When you’re a college student, you have so much passion for so many things, but you get lost in how to do it,” Robinson said. “Dr. Berry is a perfect example of someone who put their passion and turned it into action.” 

Walker-Smith said that seeing Berry speak in person is a totally different experience.  

“Just being exposed is enough.” Walker-Smith said. “It’s one thing to read about them or to see someone on TV, but to actually say that you were in the presence of this individual is another thing. To see someone like [Berry] in person is to also see her achievements and trailblazing in-person. I hope people are inspired by her and know they can do anything like she did.” 

Robinson said that students will be changed by Berry’s speech.  

“I hope people in the audience know that these activists are people like us. Sometimes people forget those people out there are humans too.” Robinson said. “These are people who went out there and did it. The students in that audience will have their lives forever changed from hearing this woman who accomplished so much and I hope they know they can enact change too.”