Slavery, exploitation, conquest and colonialism. These were the terms Mary Frances Berry used to summarize the past when she spoke about civil rights in the context of the past, present and future as part of the Chancellor’s Distinguished Fellows Series on Feb. 16 in the Crystal Cove Auditorium.
‘The past can be summed in these words,’ Berry said. ‘Everyone’s apologizing for something … not slavery yet.’
Berry was chairperson of the U.S. Commission of Civil Rights in 1993, received 31 honorary doctoral degrees and several awards such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s Roy Wikins Award for her public service. Berry is an author of several books, articles and essays regarding civil rights.
According to Berry, the landmark 1954 case Brown v. Board of Education ‘changed what whites and blacks thought what blacks could do in the South. … [It also] led to the sit-in movements.’
Although ‘the Civil Rights Movement was a success for Latin-Americans, Asian-Americans … and gays and lesbians,’ Berry expressed her disappointment in the post-Civil Rights Movement generation because of their nonchalant attitude regarding the movement and outlook on life.
‘We don’t eat right or exercise. We don’t worry enough about our health,’ Berry said. ‘We don’t focus on education enough, either. No one stops [kids] from watching stupid television shows and playing stupid games.’
Berry cited a K-12 level research study that found children desire attention. Berry agreed that giving attention to kids is the best way to educate them. She revealed the flaws in the public school system in their inadequacy in providing an effective learning environment.
‘Do you know why parents send their kids to private schools? Because they get attention. … The student-to-teacher ratio is smaller so [kids] learn and become educated,’ Berry said. ‘A friend of mine says that ‘Leaving No Child Behind can kiss my behind.’ … If you increase the class sizes, how would the kids learn?’
After expressing more of her concerns on education, Berry ended her speech with a few positive words of encouragement.
‘Everyone’s got to make their own dent on the wall. … Some day, we’ll see liberty and justice for all,’ Berry said.
During the Q-and-A session, the audience guffawed when they learned that Former President Reagan removed Berry from the U.S. Commission of Civil Rights and said at a press conference, ‘[She] serves at my pleasure and she wasn’t giving me my pleasure.’ Berry grinned and commented that ‘you cannot fire a watchdog for biting.’
Berry expressed her frustration regarding the injustice towards Hurricane Katrina victims and how America turned a blind eye after the initial news of the disaster.
‘What makes us … let it happen?’ Berry asked. ‘Is it because we don’t notice, that we’re too busy with our own lives?’
As for her thoughts on the media, Berry suggested turning to alternative sources for news due to the incompleteness of American news reporting.
‘If you want news, go to BBC or online or look at French and German television, not American, because American television doesn’t give analysis,’ Berry said. ‘They just try to be like FOX or Access. People are too busy being entertained. … They don’t know the real stories.’
Kristina Soremekun, a fourth-year history major, was interested by Berry’s talk, which was related to the topic discussed in a history class she’s taking this quarter.
‘There’s a lot of indifference. As a society, it seems like we made a lot of programs, but as soon as something bad happens, we turn the other way,’ Soremekun said. ‘The political system doesn’t encourage you to participate. … There’s all this fighting … there’s all talk and no action. If students went [to hear the talk] at least they would understand what’s going on. They’ll have questions and questions are good. … That means that they’re going to search for answers. Berry is good for spurring conversations.’