Mary Frances Berry was born in 1938 in Nashville Tenn. A scholar, lawyer and educator she earned both her Ph.D. and law degrees from the University of Michigan. But she is most honored and cherished for her advocacy for the rights of black and poor people as chairwoman of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission where she had to battle the conservative policies of Republican President Ronald Reagan.
Once you read her story, you get the feeling that if she made it, anybody could. In her early years, she was in an orphanage where the director would eat pork chops for dinner and leave the bones for the children and take milk and dilute it with water to save money. She reminded us of the value impact teachers can make. One teacher told her, “Hey you are smart. You could be somebody. So, what if you are raggedy? My teachers treated me as a diamond in the rough that needed smoothing and helped me win scholarships.” She is now the Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought and a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania.
“Mary Berry prefers a life of quiet, writing and playing tennis, but she often has to take time out to lead. When the USA and the struggle in South Africa were minus a connector, she helped provide it by agreeing to be jailed in the first anti-apartheid protest at the South African Embassy in Washington DC. That was the spark that helped start the Free South Africa movement. She has fought back at President Reagan’s move to destroy the US Commission on civil rights. And she has shown the USA that one does not have to seek glory for self to be effective in changing our society.”
Read more about Mary Frances Berry in our exclusive interview, only available in my book, And Still We Rise.