Mary Frances Berry, 74, has dedicated her life to championing the rights of people “nobody else would listen to.”
Berry has been the Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought and professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania since 1987, but she is perhaps best known as the former chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
President Jimmy Carter appointed her in 1980, and 13 years later she was named chair by President Bill Clinton. During her tenure as chair, the Commission issued major reports on New York policing practices, environmental justice, affirmative action and voter suppression in the 2000 elections in Florida.
In the 60’s and 70’s, Berry overcame obstacles of race, sex and class to rise to high profile positions in public service and higher education. She was born in poverty in Nashville and spent time in an orphanage with her older brother after her father left her mother. She attended segregated schools in the South. After graduating from Howard University in Washington, she became one of the first African-American students to earn a Ph.D. in history at the University of Michigan and later earned a law degree there.
“When I got there, the head of graduate students said to me he was surprised to see me. I found out what that meant,” Berry remembers. “He said there was one time, a Negro who came through here a few years ago, but he didn’t graduate.”
She was President Carter’s assistant secretary for education in the Department of Health Education and Welfare before he appointed her to the Civil Rights Commission. Her time there, from 1980 to 2004, was productive and tumultuous. She butted heads with Carter’s successor, Ronald Reagan, on a regular basis.
“It always amazes me. Reagan has become one of our most beloved presidents, but people forget all the stuff that’s happened.” To her chagrin, “He wanted to change the direction of civil rights. He wanted to get rid of civil rights. First thing they decided to do was to replace all the commissioners. They didn’t want anybody watch-dogging. When they got to me, and I sued them, I won. The Commission needed to be a watchdog, not a lap dog.”
Berry left the Commission at the end of her term in 2004.
For her work in public service and higher education, she’s received 35 honorary degrees. She says that her proudest accomplishment is her work helping to end apartheid in South Africa. In 1984 she co-founded the Free South Africa Movement. The organization held demonstrations at the South African embassy in Washington that led to Berry being arrested and jailed several times. She was in Cape Town to welcome Nelson Mandela home from prison as the government began tearing down the apartheid system.
Berry, a regular contributor to Politico, is a highly sought speaker and a frequent media commentator, recently appeared on C-SPAN’s “Book TV” discussing one of her 10 books, And Justice for All: The United States Commission on Civil Rights and the Continuing Struggle for Freedom in America.
When not teaching courses on the history of American law and history of law and social policy or advising students in African-American history, Berry is working on a book about the history of voter fraud in Louisiana. She says she’s discovered documents that shed light on voter suppression in the state that dates back to the 19th century.