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February 28, 2005
Past, present blend in Berry keynote lecture
BY eric rangus
The keynote speaker for Emory's celebration of African American Heritage Month, Mary Frances Berry, laid out the thoughts behind her speech, "Civil Rights: The Struggle Defined," shortly after stepping behind the podium, Monday night, Feb. 21, in WHSCAB Auditorium.
"It's an endless struggle to have people in the United States align reality with the great documents of our national life--the Declaration of Independence and preamble to the Constitution," said Berry, Geraldine Segal Professor of American Social Thought and professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania.
With that, Berry ran though a few hundred years of black history in the New World: slavery; emancipation; the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution; Jim Crow; segregation; sharecropping; lynchings; black nationalism; and the founding of the NAACP. But she paused to reflect on a major signpost in African American history, the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case, which was commemorated last year, its 50th anniversary.
"Some now claim that Brown isn't important," said Berry, noting that while the case was decided in 1954, it wasn't implemented until 1955, making this year another golden anniversary. "Schools are still largely segregated; what impact did it have? Brown was important as a milestone because it transformed what people thought blacks could do. My family members told me that they thought things were never going to change. What Brown did was it made people think that change was going to happen."
When Brown was decided, Berry was a high school student in Nashville, Tenn. Changes didn't happen as quickly as she thought they would, so Berry, who would earn her bachelor's and master's degrees at Howard University, joined the civil rights movement and never left.
Berry chaired the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights from 1993-2004; before that, she served as assistant secretary of education in the Department of Health, Education and Welfare in the administration of Jimmy Carter.
She has written seven books and is currently working on her eighth, a history of the reparations movement in the late 19th century. She served as provost at the University of Maryland-College Park and chancellor of the University of Colorado. She earned her Ph.D. and J.D. at the University of Michigan.
Giving the "history" behind black history was the lead-in to the central theme of Berry's address. "Where are we now?" she said. "We tried all these strategies and made a great deal of progress, but there is still a great deal of discrimination. I call them 'headwinds against progress.'"
Those headwinds are not exclusively about race; they include the growing influence of traditional ideas about gender and the role of women, health care disparities, and tensions about immigration.
Berry added that the definition of civil rights has been recast. "Diversity in high places doesn't really mean progress," she said. "There is a rise of conservatives with masks of diversity."
That Berry would have a problem with the administration of George W. Bush is probably not a surprise. She was fired from the Civil Rights Commission in 1983 by another Republican, President Ronald Reagan, but later won reinstatement in federal court.
With the idea that progress is in the eye of the beholder, Berry said much more remains to be done. "We have to work and not despair, because if Rosa Parks had taken a poll before she sat down on that bus, she would still be standing up," Berry said.
Berry was introduced by an old friend from the University of Michigan, Provost Earl Lewis, who previously was Michigan's graduate school dean. "I'm not sure I'm happy to have Michigan lose him," Berry said of Lewis. "My alma mater needs good people like him."