Q&A with Mary Frances Berry

Q&A with Mary Frances Berry

Photo credit: Peter Tobia

Mary Frances Berry

Upon appointing Mary Frances Berry, the Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought and Professor of History at Penn, as the first chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in 1993, President Clinton called her a “civil rights scholar as well as an advocate.”

“I am proud to make this historic nomination and I have every confidence in the commitment and abilities of Ms. Berry,” the president said. “Her distinguished life and career uniquely qualify her for this new leadership role.”

Berry was born at the dawn of the Civil Rights Movement in segregated Tennessee, where she attended separate but unequal schools through high school.

“All the things that people experienced during segregation—the separate water fountains and sitting in the back of the bus—all of those things were in my experience,” she says.

She received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Howard University, and her Ph.D. and J.D. degrees from the University of Michigan.
In 1974, she was appointed provost of the University of Maryland, giving her what the university proclaimed was the “highest office in academia held by a Black woman” at that time. Two years later, Berry became the first woman and African American to serve as chancellor of the University of Colorado at Boulder.

During the Carter Administration, she served as assistant secretary for education in the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. President Carter later appointed her to the Commission on Civil Rights, where she served until 2004. She was its chairwoman from 1993 to 2004.

Berry says her native Tennessee has seen much change since the days of segregation, just as the country has changed. “Before the Civil Rights Movement, the only place you could go and eat a meal where black folks could go in a public restaurant and sit down with white folks was at the airport, and that was because it was a federal facility,” she says. “Now, of course, that’s not the case.”

The Current sat down with Berry to discuss the evils of segregation, working for Republican and Democratic administrations, why she thinks the Civil Rights Commission should be abolished and her most recent book, “Power in Words: The Stories behind Barack Obama’s Speeches, from the State House to the White House.”

Q. You grew up in segregated Tennessee. Was the racism in Tennessee as bad as in Alabama and Mississippi?
Nashville, where I came from, has a smaller black population than East Tennessee, Memphis, which is more like Mississippi. Although Tennessee had plantations and slaves, it didn’t have the kind of climate for the plantations that existed [elsewhere] in the South. Segregation and Jim Crow existed in Tennessee just like it did everywhere else in the South. The transformation started to come with the protest movements. Brown [v. Board of Education] came first. When Brown was decided, I said to one of my teachers that I thought it was wonderful because next year all the kids will be going to school together. And she said, ‘Not so fast, Mary Frances, not so fast.’ And she was right, of course, because it didn’t happen fast. It took awhile for that to occur.

Q. Was segregation as demeaning and degrading as it has been described?
It was all the things that people know. My favorite story that I remember about it is one my mother told me. People think that when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus, that was the first time anybody ever did it, but this happened all over the South. My mother told me about an altercation she had on the bus in Nashville when I was still a baby. She was coming home from work in a white neighborhood and got on the bus. She sat down in the middle of the bus; nobody else was on the bus except her and the driver. A street car it was. Some white teenagers got on at one of the stops; they were getting out of high school. They got on the bus and instead of sitting in front of her, which was what white people were supposed to do, they sat behind her. There wasn’t anybody else on the bus except her, but they deliberately sat behind her. Then they started calling her names and saying, ‘You’re sitting in front of us; why are you sitting in front of us?’ when in fact they had sat behind her. Then they went up to the bus driver and said, ‘The n-word is sitting in front of us; she’s not supposed to be sitting in front of us.’ Then they went back and tried to get my mother to get up, but my mother wouldn’t because there were plenty of seats in front of her and they had sat down behind her deliberately. So then they started trying to make her get up, so she started tussling with them. She said the last thing she remembered is they hit her and she flew at them.
The next thing she knew, the bus had stopped and the white students and bus driver had gotten off and she was on the bus by herself. The bus driver had two police officers with him. The police officers came on the bus and asked her what happened, and she told them. She thought the police officers were going to arrest her and she said she was worried because she had two little children at home. She said the police officer said to the bus driver, ‘Why did you let those white teenagers sit behind her? You know white people aren’t supposed to sit behind Negroes.’ And so she didn’t go jail. But she stood up for her rights. But there were other people all over the South who did that.

Q. You and Miss Parks were contemporaries, correct?
Most of us who have been around doing civil rights work had occasion to be with her a lot. She worked in Congressman John Conyers’ office in Detroit and she was always at every kind of civil rights event and you would always go whenever she was getting an award or something over the years. In that group, we’d see each other. Coretta [Scott King, the wife of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.] said to me one time that the reason she liked to have protests in later years, when we would be protesting against something—whether it was the Haitian refugee cause or South Africa or whatever—was because everybody gets together and you get to see each other.

Q. How did you end up working for President Carter?
I had planned to be a scholar, although one summer I worked in a legal aid office because I wanted to see what it was like to actually be involved in cases. I started teaching at various places and I ended up finally at the University of Maryland, College Park. The chancellor at the University of Maryland asked me if I would be provost, so I became the provost. First he had me organize an African American Studies Program, and that was because I was the only black faculty member in the College of Arts and Sciences and the students were protesting and demanding an African American Studies Program. So I did that first, while I was teaching, and then he asked me to be provost. Then the people at the University of Colorado were looking for a head of their university and they recruited me and asked me to take that job, and I did. While I was there, I was at the Orange Bowl football game on New Year’s Day because Colorado won the Big 8 Championship. So we went down to Miami and played Ohio State. They beat us. While I was there, I got this phone call, and Jimmy Carter asked me if I would come to Washington to run federal education programs. I thought it was interesting because I didn’t campaign for Carter; I didn’t even vote for Carter. I think I voted for some candidate who was on a third-party ticket; I’ve forgotten who it was. And I didn’t consider myself to belong to any party, but they had read all about me being at Colorado because it was a historic first. I was the first woman to be the head of a major university. I was the first black woman, too; that’s because I’m black. When he first asked me, I thought he was kidding. Actually, I thought it was one of the Board of Trustees playing a joke because at the game people get drunk, so I figured they thought they were having a little fun. So I said, ‘No,’ and I laughed and I hung up. So I finally decided to go and I went on leave from the university and I went to run federal education programs.

Q. President Carter called you directly?
He said he was President Carter. We didn’t have caller ID back then.

Q. How did you end up on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights?
I ran education and helped the president get education out of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. It was stifling bureaucratically and the president had promised that he would make an Education Department if he got elected, so he was trying to get legislation passed to do this and it was hard, so I helped him do it. Then after he got the Department and he made the appointments, I said I was going to go back and teach, and I went and I taught at Howard University, and I left the administration. But when I left, the president wanted me to do something to show that we were still good friends and on good terms and to take advantage of my experience, so they asked me what I wanted to do. So I said, ‘Well, I used to do some consulting for the Civil Rights Commission and they had interesting projects, so maybe I’d like to be on the Commission.’ So the president appointed me there.

Q. Have you noticed any differences in the approach to civil rights under Democratic and Republican administrations?
There are clear distinctions because they serve different constituencies, or they think they’re serving different constituents while they’re serving the national interest. Carter was pretty good on civil rights. He appointed good people to the various jobs in the administration and he really didn’t get in their way. He had some little slips with ethnic neighborhoods, which was a big issue at that time, whether blacks should move into neighborhoods where the white ethnics thought that they were being invaded. That happened in Philadelphia and in other places. He had some policy problems but by and large, he had a good record. Things were fairly serene. Reagan, who came after him, consciously said that he was changing the course of civil rights. One of the interesting things about the 100th anniversary celebrations that are going on in the country about Reagan is that most people who are talking about it don’t even mention his civil rights record, which was egregious. It wasn’t just affirmative action, which he was against, but he started his campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where the three civil rights workers were killed. I mean he consciously started his campaign there. And I know from reading White House files that they were always trying to undermine enforcing the laws. And the people who worked for him—some of them who are around now, like [Supreme Court Associate Justice Samuel Alito and Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts], who were in his administration—were always writing memos trying to undermine various parts of the civil rights laws. The Justice Department’s whole Civil Rights Division practically quit because [the Reagan Administration] didn’t want them to enforce the Voting Rights Act and all the other civil rights laws. Carter felt he had a Democratic constituency, including black folks and other people of color, and he was a Reconstructed Southerner, so he wanted to do the right thing on race. Reagan had a whole different attitude. George Bush the first was much better than Reagan. He opposed various new pieces of civil rights legislation, but the people he appointed were not as adamantly eager to go out and undermine everything they could find in the same way the Reagan people were. He was a much more benign personality, George the first. Clinton was very good. He was the best civil rights president since Johnson.
Lyndon Johnson, in modern times, was probably the best. Clinton made good appointments. He used to tell people that—he loves to tell this story—that whenever he asked me whether he had done a good job on a civil rights issue, that he’d be all excited about how he had done and he’d say, ‘How am I doing?’ And I’d say, ‘I’d give you about a C+.’ And he said he didn’t really mind because it was my job to monitor what he was doing. But it was true. I was always urging him to do more, more, more, more. And some things he didn’t do; he wasn’t as strong on racial profiling. He was against it, but he didn’t want to do anything. But his Justice Department was good, his appointments were good. George Bush the second was as bad as Reagan on civil rights. It was about the same because three-quarters of the people in [Bush 43’s] Civil Rights Division left the Justice Department. For anybody who had been around since the Reagan period, it was like a rerun, only worse. They wouldn’t enforce the Voting Rights Act when blacks complained that their right to vote was being interfered with. The only cases they could find the whole time they were there were two cases where some white people said that they felt some black people were interfering with their rights. And the Voting Rights chief famously made a statement about me. It was in the press. A guy asked him if he wanted some coffee. They were going to have a meeting. They were emailing back and forth and somebody leaked it to the press. And he said, ‘Yes, but make mine like Mary Frances Berry: black and bitter.’ He got asked about that at a Senate hearing, what did he mean. You can tell the difference and there’s a difference because of the constituency concerns and ideology and their beliefs.

Q. Do you think the Commission has become politicized?
The Commission has been politicized since Reagan fired me and other people and we sued him and we got our jobs back and they made a compromise. It’s been politicized ever since, which is why I think it should be abolished and they should start all over again.

Q. Shortly after President Obama’s election, you told SAS Frontiers that you hoped that the Obama Administration would expand the scope of the Commission’s mandate to include ‘sexual orientation and international human rights issues.’ Are you satisfied with the Obama Administration’s approach to civil rights so far?
As far as the Civil Rights Commission is concerned, he’s not been doing so well. He’s got a lot of other concerns, but in the administration and in human rights groups, they all agree that what I’ve proposed should be done, it’s just that they haven’t done it yet. So I’m still hoping. On same-sex marriage and LGBT issues, we of course have had a lot of legal developments since the election, in the military and everywhere else, and we have court cases out there. But we still haven’t had a broad change in the country. I think the Commission should be given jurisdiction over discrimination based on sexual orientation, just as it has jurisdiction over race and sex and disability and age discrimination and religious discrimination. So I’m still hopeful that will happen.

Q. Do you think President Obama is at somewhat of a disadvantage because it could hurt him politically if he seems like he’s doing things specifically for black people?
But we don’t know what he actually wants to do. That’s the conundrum. I do think that, symbolically, his election to the presidency is really important in terms of the milestone. But as far as African Americans are concerned, on political issues, they might be better off having a president who wasn’t an African American, who would be catering to them and trying to support them, which is what presidents do when they’re trying to get elected, seeing what they can do for you, as opposed to one who’s worried about whether people think he’s somehow favoring African Americans, if that’s what he does. I don’t know what’s in his mind. There’s a sense that the price that African Americans pay for having him as president is to have somebody who they can’t ask anything. And I think there’s a consensus in the community that you don’t really press him and ask him for anything.

Q. Your 2005 book, ‘My Face Is Black Is True: Callie House and the Struggle for Ex-Slave Reparations’ tells the story of the ‘thousands of ex-slaves [who] devoted years to pressing the reparations cause.’ There is a lot of talk today about reparations for slavery but it sounds like this is something African Americans have been fighting for since they were freed?
Yes and what’s interesting about that book is I use the modern term ‘Reparations’ in the title but they called them pensions for slavery, and the person who led the movement was a woman. Callie House is somebody who’s not known to history. She’s been one of those overlooked people, but she was a leader of this movement and had been a slave herself. The idea was that people who had actually been slaves would be able to get pensions. It was a period in which war veterans were given pensions. There were some disputes about black war veterans; they had a hard time getting them. But in general, veterans kept getting higher and higher pensions. And so the idea was that if you’re doing that, why not give pensions to people who are poor and who are getting older and who have few means of support and who were slaves all this time? They had a movement; they signed petitions. When they couldn’t write, somebody signed it for them and they put an ‘X.’ And they sent [the petitions] to the Congress of the United States, and they’ve been laying there in the National Archives all these years.
What Callie House hoped to do was to get the name of every ex-slave on a petition. The federal government’s pension department said she had about 300,000 dues-paying members, which, if that’s true, would be the largest movement of African Americans to that date, and larger than most movements since that time. But that was the government’s figure, not her figure. There were hearings from the Committee of Pensions but [former slaves] weren’t able to get the pensions. In my reading of the correspondence in the Archives and so on, it was clear that the federal government considered her a threat and considered the movement a threat because it was going to stir up Negroes. In a sense, she was like the godmother of the whole reparations movement. But the main point is that the issue of whether or not one believes there ought to be reparations for people since slavery, we’re talking about people who were actually slaves. A lot of them had gotten old by that time [or] were sick. I have this fascinating story in there about a woman in her 90s who was still working for the same employer that she worked for when she was a slave because she didn’t have anybody to take care of her so she had to work.

Q. The federal government didn’t offer former slaves any sort of help?
Nothing. The Russians, when they freed the serfs, they gave them a plow. But blacks weren’t given anything.

Q. What motivated you to write your most recent book, ‘Power in Words: The Stories behind Barack Obama’s Speeches, from the State House to the White House?’
Actually it was Josh Gottheimer, who is a Penn graduate and was one of my students here. I hooked him up with some folks at the White House and after that, it was history. He took off like a meteor. He wrote speeches for John Kerry during his campaign and wrote speeches for Clinton. He and Jon Favreau, who is Obama’s chief speechwriter, got to be friends and worked on his campaign. Josh said he would like us to do a book about the meaning of the speeches. For me, it was interesting to write it with somebody who was one of my students. It was an exciting enterprise for us to work together.
The idea is that the main currency that Obama had during the campaign was his personality and his rhetorical ability. Of course he’s intelligent and all those things, but what impressed people so much was his way with words and the way he speaks and the way he explains things, along with the attractiveness of his personality. We wanted to see how the speeches changed from the time of his first campaign for the Illinois State Senate all the way to the White House. In order to do that, we needed to know what he and his speechwriters had in mind when they were developing the speeches and whether they came across the way they expected. We wrote the behind-the-scenes story of what happened and the impact of it, and then we added the speeches at the end as a bonus.

Originally published on February 17, 2011