Mary Frances Berry, a ‘woman of the century’

Mary Frances Berry is the Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought and professor of history. She is the former chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, former assistant secretary for education in the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, and the author of thirteen books. Berry is fellow of the Society of American Historians and of the National Academy of Public Administration and a distinguished fellow of the American Society for Legal History. In recognition of her scholarship and public service, she has received 35 honorary doctoral degrees and many awards.

portrait of woman with cropped hair and glasses
Mary Frances Berry, Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought and a professor of history and Africana studies. (Image: Jim Abbott)

Berry is one of 75 women featured in “I Dream A World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America,” and the Sienna College Research Institute and the Women’s Hall of Fame designated her one of “Americas Women of the Century.”

In “History Teaches Us to Resist: How Progressive Movements Have Succeeded in Challenging Times”(Beacon Press, 2018), Berry documents resistance movements throughout American history and demonstrate that protest is an essential component of the political process. Regarding recent protests, Berry sees strength in consistent messaging as a powerful tool of resistance. “A successful protest needs two things: persistence and a message that is simple. The recent activity around federal force being involved in suppressing protests has, in a sense, distracted from the central message.

I think protests are going to have to go on for a much longer period. The ‘defund the police’ message—which really means shift money from the police to social services and redefine the role of the police—remains controversial. In order to achieve positive results, it’s going to take much more time,” Berry says.

“One difference from earlier protests is social media. It’s easier now to organize and inform people—in the old days we had mimeograph machines and phone calls and written letters. Of course, social media also makes surveillance of protesters easier, so it’s a two-edged sword.

There’s also the issue of the November election. A lot of political people are trying to push the protesters to stop protesting and work only on the election. That would be a mistake. We’ve had elections before and they have not upended white supremacy or improved civil rights enforcement. There’s no reason to believe that this election will be any different.”

On the role of research and instruction in informing efforts to make cities more equitable, Berry argues that researcher “disaggregate” data on diversity and inclusion. “Too often, data on underserved people and minorities is aggregated. For instance, some people report data on African Americans without disaggregating the data so that we can see people from the Caribbean, people from Africa, slave-descended African Americans, people of different income levels, and so on.

When looking at the effects of COVID-19, for example, you might say, ‘Blacks and Latinos have the highest rate of infection’—but if you don’t say which groups within those communities you’re talking about, you can’t tell who is doing okay and who is not. In order to provide applicable remedies, we need more careful analysis. We can’t do that if we don’t have good data.”

This story is by Cara Griffin. Read more at Penn IUR.