Activist, U-M alum Mary Frances Berry discusses intersections of politics and justice at Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium

Monday, January 18, 2021 - 9:03pm

Dr. Mary Frances Berry joins MLK Symposium to discuss ‘Race, Protests & Politics’

Dr. Mary Frances Berry joins MLK Symposium to discuss ‘Race, Protests & Politics’ Buy this photo
Courtesy of Martha Lewand

In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the University of Michigan hosted a lecture titled “Race, Protest & Politics: Where Do We Go From Here?” featuring University alum Dr. Mary Frances Berry. The talk, which hosted nearly 300 people, was held virtually over Zoom.

Berry is an author, activist, educator and historian who has advocated for civil rights for marginalized communities in the United States, South Africa and Vietnam. Dean of Libraries James L. Hilton began the talk by introducing Berry and noting how the upcoming inauguration and protests over racial justice this past summer have put the country in an unprecedented political situation.

“We are at this moment less than two days away from a transfer of presidential power that is testing our democracy in unprecedented ways,” Hilton said. “And on the heels of the year (when) one cell phone video of police brutality reenergized protests across the country and drove home for many the reality of structural racism. I cannot imagine a better person to hear from than our speaker, Mary Francis Berry.” 

Berry said the country’s democracy is “under pressure” and that King’s legacy is vital to healing the country.

“This is a time where we need MLK,” Berry said. “We need his analysis of his marvelous pronouncements, which were perfected from his experience throughout what was a very short life.”

Berry suggested that everyone think from King’s perspective — a skill she practiced with her close friend Coretta Scott King, a fellow activist and wife of King.

“Whenever something happened that was a human rights crisis or something that went on, we would talk with each other and try to figure out what to do,” Berry said. “And we would say to each other: ‘What would Martin do?’ And the answer always is that we should adhere to the principle of nonviolence, and we should try to persuade other people to join us in social justice.”

LSA freshman Charlotte Gu, who attended Berry’s lecture, said this question of ‘what would Martin do?’ struck her because of how applicable it is to current protests against racial inequality.

“She kept on repeating, ‘What would Martin do?’ and I think that line was really powerful,” Gu said. “Not only because she kept on repeating it, but also, if you think through his perspective, and if he could see the racial turmoil we are going through today, it’s important to put yourself back in his shoes, see what he did, put everything into context and ask yourself, ‘what would he do in this scenario?’”

Berry stressed the importance of King’s activist legacy, saying “there is still more to do” in terms of ending discrimination, white supremacy and inequality. Berry said President Donald Trump’s defeat in this past election is not enough to enact change. 

“The goal of ending inequality and white supremacy remains contested, because freedom is a constant struggle,” Berry said. “And the struggle is just continuing in another phase. We have to continue to resist and work until the victory is won.” 

Gu said Berry’s talk reminded her of how fighting against inequality is a constant struggle that cannot be fixed simply by voting or becoming active in politics.

“This is my second DEI (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) event on campus, so I think that even though it’s important to go to these, going to these meetings is not where it stops,” Gu said. “I think the big takeaway was that even with this (presidential) election, even though voting is important, voting is not the end: there’s still more we can do. There’s still inequality — (it’s) just a different presidential administration. There’s still a lot of work to do.”

Berry said King was successful as an activist and leader because he was “not afraid to say some things that some people would find unpopular.” She cited King’s final book, “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?”, as a source of inspiration behind her belief that people should challenge politicians and lawmakers to advocate for justice once they take office.

“So what I ask is that we continue the resistance and put pressure on the people who are in politics to do the right thing, and do right and good at the same time,” Berry said. “Thereby, and if we embrace this approach, that Martin's vision and commitment that he laid out, and ‘Where do we go from here?’ we can make liberty and justice for all a reality in our time.”

Daily Staff Reporter Martha Lewand can be reached at mlewand@umich.edu.

Correction: The article previously incorrectly stated Dr. Berry as the keynote speaker.


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