Dr. Mary Frances Berry on Friday told participants in the Leadership Conference Celebrating African American History Month that protests play a vital role in politics.
Speaking during the opening session of the conference at Troy University on Friday night, Berry drew on her experiences with “protests that worked” such as the Free South Africa Movement, the protests that led to the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Black Lives Matter movement to identify leadership qualities necessary for success.
The Leadership Conference Celebrating African American History Month was launched in 2002 by the University and the City of Troy to promote dialogue that fosters multicultural collaboration and equip diverse leaders with tools to better serve their organizations and communities. This year’s theme is “Effective Leadership: Civically, Economically and Socially.”
“When I see wrong being done, I don’t care where it is, what it is, who’s doing it, how big or small they are, I can not sit still,” Berry said. “I have seen and been a part of protests that have worked. My belief in protest as a tradition is real.”
Her belief the ability of protests to bring about policy change led her to write her latest book, “History Teaches Us to Resist: How Progressive Movements Have Succeeded in Challenging Times,” in which she examined the successful tactics of movements that ended the Vietnam War, jump-started government response to the AIDS epidemic, championed the Americans with Disabilities Act and advanced civil, women’s and LGBTQ rights.
“All of these things require courage, they require conviction and they require strategy,” she said. “It doesn’t help the people you are trying to help if you have strategy that doesn’t work because you have thought enough about it. You need education and you need to be able to think strategically, but you also need to be able to put your body on the line.”
First and foremost, persistence is key in any successful protest, she said.
“The first thing you must have is persistence. If you are not persistent, you will not get anything done,” Berry said.
True leadership, Berry said, requires an attitude of service before self.
“To me leadership means being courageous and not caring about yourself so much but caring about other people,” she said. “Be thoughtful and mindful about what you think and propose. If you work in that way maybe we will someday realize what I have always wanted for this country – liberty and justice for all.”
For more than four decades, Berry has been one of the most visible and respected activists in the causes of civil rights, gender equality and social justice. Serving as the chairperson of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, she led the charge for equal rights and liberties for all Americans over the course of four Presidential administrations.
Berry became the first woman of any race to head a major research university as Chancellor of the University of Colorado at Boulder. She is the Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought and Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania, where she teaches the history of American law and the history of law and social policy.
Berry received the Nelson Mandela award from the South African Government for her role in organizing the Free South Africa Movement, raising global awareness of South African injustice that helped to end more than 40 years of apartheid. She also served as assistant secretary for education in the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare.
The Leadership Conference Celebrating African American History Month continued on Saturday with the closing keynote address being delivered by Peggy Wallace Kennedy.