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Biographical Details of Leadership
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BOND: Dr. Mary Berry, thank you for joining us in Explorations in Black Leadership. Thank you for being here.
BERRY: Thank you for having me.
BOND: Well, it’s our pleasure. I want to begin with some questions about Brown v. Board. What did it mean to you when you first heard that the Supreme Court had made this ruling?
BERRY: I heard it on the day that I was walking downtown in Nashville with my high school teacher who was for all my life my best friend until she died and she and I were looking for some material for costumes for the high school play at the end of the— We were graduating that year and we saw the headline on the newspaper. I hadn’t seen the paper that morning, and it said, you know, Supreme Court says segregation over, illegal, something like that, and I said, oh, my goodness, Mrs. Hawkins, isn’t that wonderful? It means that next year all the children will be going to school together and she said, not so fast, Mary Frances, not so fast, and I thought it meant that if the schools were desegregated that everybody would just start going to the same schools and that was the end of segregation but, of course, in talking to not only her but everybody else in Nashville and my family, people said nothing’s going to happen overnight. You can forget that and they were right and I was wrong.
BOND: Now, what has it turned out to mean, despite this optimism you had as a young woman, what has it turned out to mean?
BERRY: Well, what Brown has meant depends on what you think Brown was supposed to do. Thurgood Marshall and the lawyers thought that the case would provide a basis for equal opportunity for black kids and that one way to do that was to desegregate the schools since they had tried equalizing them and that didn’t work and it wasn’t about, as Clarence Thomas says, a black child has to sit next to a white child to learn but it was about if we can find the resources, we can deal with the tangible and the intangible factors, maybe we can improve the education of black kids without doing harm to anybody else’s education. That’s what I think what Brown was supposed to mean.
Now, what is has meant is the schools, of course, have not been desegregated. I mean, two-thirds of black kids go to racially isolated schools. Three-fourths of Latinos kids do so and most white kids go to racially isolated schools. It has improved the quality of education for some people but by and large it has not for those who’ve been left behind which is why we keep working on it.
Brown also is something else. It became immediately an icon, a symbol, of America’s commitment to justice, to racial justice and to being the best of a multiracial democracy, so in the minds of many people, Brown stands for more than just segregation or desegregation. It stands for we made a commitment as Americans that we were going to change and that’s what Brown signaled.
BOND: Now, how did it impact you? Obviously you were a senior in high school when you heard about it. It didn’t affect your high school education.
BERRY: No, it didn’t.
BOND: But in the years since, how has it affected you?
BERRY: Well, in the years since— So I had the segregated education right through Brown. Then in college, I went to predominantly black institutions, first to Fisk and then to Howard, so it didn’t affect what I did there. It affected jobs that I had that I had— I had to work in order to put myself through college and there were some jobs that I was able to get that before relatives of mine were not able to and even though Brown— That’s what I mean when I say Brown was about schools but it was also about other things. For example, when I came to Washington and I was working at a hospital and I got an opportunity to work in the lab and they’d never had any black people working in the lab before. It was sort of like the ethos of what the kind of change that should take place, so then, of course, the overall change in American society, Brown leading up to the boycotts, the success of the Montgomery boycott, and then the whole civil rights movement naturally had an enormous impact on the kind of life I could lead and the kind of education I could get.
BOND: Now, who are the people who’ve been most significant in your development, beginning with your folks, your family? Who helped you become you?
BERRY: Well, in my own family, my mother was the youngest of 13 children and no one in that family graduated from high school and no one graduated from the 8th grade until my mother came along, yet the children of all of those relatives all went to college except one who wouldn’t go, no matter what you did. You could whip him with a stick and he still wouldn’t go, but everybody else went and everybody else graduated, okay, and everybody else had some kind of professional job after that. An enormous change from what had happened.
My own mother who graduated from the 8th grade would’ve been able to go to high school and wanted to go high school but there was no high school for Negroes and so she didn’t go to high school. She probably could’ve been president of the United States or something, she’s smart enough. So that for my own family, you had the example when I came along of other people who were taking advantage of opportunities and it was sort of assumed that I would, too, and my brothers would, too. I mean, everybody assumed you would do things that as my mother put it, years before no one would’ve assumed that you could do any of those things but now you do them.
And then my high school teacher, the same one I had mentioned in connection with the case, was always an inspiration to me. She opened up my eyes to what was available in the world beyond the narrower world that I knew of Nashville and always supported me and encouraged me. Then I had other professors, or teachers mainly, who helped me throughout my life and finally when I got to Howard, I had a professor named Elsie Lewis who was enormously helpful to me. Rayford Logan, a distinguished historian, and then I went to Michigan to graduate school, a white professor—there weren’t any black ones in the department—named Bill Leslie took me under his wing and they told me I was the first black student who had ever come there and stayed. That there had been one years ago but nobody remembered who it was and he led me into the field of legal and constitutional history which I worked in and was very protective and very helpful so there were teachers mainly who helped me along the way.
BOND: What about people in the larger community outside of family and school? What about people in the Nashville community? Were there role models or people who were helpful in pushing you along?
BERRY: Well, aside from teachers and members of my own family, I don’t recall any particular persons who took an interest and who did things, but there were a lot— a whole variety of teachers who were the leaders in the community, by the way, the professors and teachers were the leaders in the community.
BOND: I was thinking about somebody like Z. Alexander Looby who was a pioneering Nashville lawyer and the kind of figure I think would be pointed out to a young person to see that man. He’s a lawyer.
BERRY: Oh, yes. Yes. Well, I knew Looby and knew all about his grand reputation and the things that he did and admired him very much but I didn’t have—
BOND: No personal connection with him?
BOND: Now, you mentioned a moment ago a professor who led you into the field of legal and constitutional history, but how did you say to yourself this is going to be my life, I’m going to do this?
BERRY: Well, I wanted to go to graduate school and Elsie Lewis, the professor at Howard, encouraged me to apply to a bunch of places and I got admitted to all of them and I got admitted to Michigan and the reason why I went there was because I needed a job and they weren’t giving fellowships to black students or anything like that or to— And they certainly weren’t going to give me a fellowship even though I got admitted and so a friend of mine got me a job at the hospital in Ann Arbor and that’s why I went there instead of going to Cambridge or some place else and so when I got there, she had told me, Professor Lewis had, which professor to work with, someone she knew that she thought would be receptive and I got there and I went in and met with the director of graduate studies who was a man who was in Greek history and he was quite taken aback because he didn’t understand what I was doing there. He was the one who told me that there had been somebody there years ago, but— And he had to call people all over the campus to find out what he supposed to do with me. He said there’s a Negro student in my office, what shall I do with her?
Finally, I guess people told him to do whatever he did with anybody else and so he assigned me an advisor, not the man I was to work with because it turned out he’d retired and it was Bill Leslie and I went over and talked to Bill and I liked him and he liked me and he was very receptive. There was nothing negative about his approach or anything. He told me it would be hard and he said, you know, when you graduate, perhaps the only options for you will be to teach at one of the Negro colleges because that’s just the way life is but, you know, maybe change will occur and he said I’m in legal and constitutional history but if you work with me, you’ve got to go to law school, too, and I said go to law school, too? He said, yeah, because I don’t think you can understand this stuff without doing both and so I started working with him and then when I finished the degree with him, I went over to the law school and finished the law degree.
BOND: So I guess if he’d told you he was in southern history, what would you have had to do then?
BERRY: I have no idea because—
BOND: Make up a Civil War reenactment or something.
BERRY: A Civil War reenactment, yes.
BOND: Now, looking back on your education, anybody who knows you or knows of you would consider you a leader. What in your education prepared you to be a leader? Not prepared you to be a scholar, but prepared you to be a leader or maybe they’re the same thing.
BERRY: I don’t know. I’ve been asked that question and I’ve thought about it. I’m not sure I am a leader.
BOND: Take it for granted that— Even just for the purposes of this that you are a leader.
BERRY: Well, we can pretend hypothetically because I’m not the head of an organization.
BOND: You don’t have to be to be a leader.
BERRY: Or whatever.
BOND: You have to be someone that people pay attention to.
BERRY: Ahh, okay.
BOND: And listens to and—
BERRY: All right. For this definition then of leader, I thought very often when people say to me why do you do the things you do, the activist kinds of things that I do and to some extent, I attribute it to my background and experiences as a child growing up.
BOND: And they were?
BERRY: Being poor and being, you know, the sort of hard-scrabble existence but also the example of my relatives and my cousins and everybody striving and some of the bad things that happened to people, the racist things that happened to people and to me as I was growing up as a child and responding to those and feeling hurt by them, but you never can know really what separates one person from another because, you know, I’ve got cousins and they’re not activists, so— And my brothers, you know, so—
BOND: So the question is why were you the reactor and they not? What did distinguish you from your cousins?
BERRY: For the whole of my life, whenever anyone did anything that I thought was unfair or unjust, I would respond to them and object without ever thinking about how much it would cost or what would they do or— It never entered my mind. I would— You know, sometimes the consequences were severe, but if I thought it was unfair or if I thought it was unjust, I would have to tell them.
BOND: But where did this notion in you of right and wrong, where’d this come from? When did you say to yourself, gee, that’s not fair what’s happening over there? How did you determine that? What does that rest on? How’d you know this thing was unfair?
BERRY: I have no idea. I don’t know whether it’s religion or whether it’s taught ethics or whether some sense or what, but I do have this very deep inner core which tells me that if something’s wrong, don’t tolerate it, no matter what it is and when things are wrong— And I could be wrong. Perhaps what I’m seeing is unfair is really fair, but I always go by my own instincts and if I see people are being hurt and I feel that they haven’t done anything to deserve whatever is happening to them or if I see people who no one else is helping them, or people who take advantage of other people, or any situation where I think people have gotten ahead by advantage when it’s not the right thing for people who’re left behind, I just react to it and I don’t give a second thought to whether I should be doing it or not.
BOND: So to you, are you saying this is a function of nature, of your own personality rather than some nurturing you received from school or family or church?
BERRY: It may be something— I think it’s a combination. Part of it may be what I was taught by people like Minerva Hawkins who spent a lot of time teaching me about things. Part of what I saw in my own family that happened with people, unfair things that happened to relatives and so on and partly things that happened to me that I didn’t think were fair.
BOND: Let me interrupt you. It’s one thing to decide that something that you’ve seen is unfair. I think lots of people do that or something that happened to you is unfair, but it’s another thing to take the next step and say, well, I’m going to do or say or argue. I’m going to do something about it, so that’s I guess what the question is.
BERRY: Ahh— Well, I happen to think— I mean, I haven’t thought much about this, but knowing that that happens to almost everybody at some time and some people respond and others don’t, then it must be something where in your experiences you’re different or it’s innate, one or the other. It’s a personality characteristic.
BOND: What is it with you?
BERRY: I have no idea. I wish I didn’t, so perhaps it is innate because often I wish I could just be silent when something happens and say, well, just let it pass, let it go, don’t do anything, don’t strategize and I don’t mean that I do it in any manner where I walk up in somebody’s face and permit them to punch me in the nose. That’s not the point. The point is to try to figure out strategically how to do something about whatever has occurred and not to let it go until I figure out something.
BOND: Did you ever have the feeling that if you let it go, nobody will do anything about it?
BERRY: Yes, I said that one time that the time you really need to do something is when nobody else will do anything and I believe that.
BOND: Do you remember a first time in your life when you thought of yourself as a leader and I know you rejected the notion, but work with me here. Do you know the first time in your life in high school or grade school or college, university, first job, that you said to yourself I’m a leader, people pay attention to what I do and say?
BERRY: Well, when I had this job in the hospital and I was supposed to be learning how to do laboratory work, medical laboratory work, and that’s what I’d signed on for and they decided that they needed someone to work in the cleaning area to clean needles. In those days, they squirted disinfectant through needles to clean them and they had nobody to do that. Somebody had left or something, so they looked around to see who they could get and I was the only black person there, so they said you go down there and clean out those— From now on, you’re going to be a needle cleaner and I wouldn’t go. I said that’s not what I was brought on for and I don’t see my life as being a needle cleaner and if I learn how to work in the lab which is what I signed on for, I can get a better job and move up and not being a needle— So I’m not going and I wouldn’t do it, so they kept trying every way to get me to do this.
BOND: Did they come close to firing you?
BERRY: Yes. And then I noticed— Finally they let me go back to the lab when I just— They found another person, but I noticed that other people who worked there, other white people who worked there, and some of the black people who had jobs that were more menial, they began to come to me to say, you know, you’re right about that. They should— The only reason why they did it to you, you’ve been here longer, you came here to learn how to do this and now they’re going to make you go down there and clean needles and they seemed to think that that was an important thing to do and an important step that might change some things around there for them, too, and that’s the first time I ever thought about it.
BOND: So you became an example for the others?
BERRY: It seemed that way, yes.
BOND: Let me ask you — think about these things. What do you see as the difference between vision? You’ve written about some early experiences, family experiences, where you had to go to an orphanage. What did this teach you? What did you learn from these experiences?
BERRY: Well, being in the orphanage is the earliest memory I have and that memory is of my brother’s voice, crying, which haunted me for years and I was so young that I couldn’t connect what he was crying about. It was just a memory of him crying and then he explained it to me. They all explained it to me. He was hungry and he was crying because he was hungry and he was just perpetually hungry because we were in this awful orphanage run by a man who took money from the local social services and didn’t spend it on the kids and it was like some horrible Charles Dickens’ story and he would whip the kids if they tried to find some food somewhere, a few crumbs, and one of the men who worked there would cook pork chops for himself, I was told, and then eat them and then give the bones, sell the bones to the kids because if their parents came, their one parent who came to see them, in some cases or a relative and left them money, he’d take the money and sell them the bones, so it was one of those horrible places, so I was there as a baby. I must’ve been about two or something.
My mother — my father had left and my mother didn’t have anyone to help her and so — and had nobody to keep us and so she put us in the orphanage and she would come to see us until she could figure out what else to do and later on, she came and got us, but I remember that experience and the crying which I can still hear now. It’s never gone away.
There were other kinds of formative experiences that I recall. The one about the motorcycle cop who in Nashville was very well known by everyone in the community, in the black community where I lived. He would drive around harassing black people and he drove up into the yard of my cousin where we lived after we got out of the orphanage and I must’ve been about four or something by then, five, four I guess, and we were all standing out in the yard which looked huge to me then and now I go back and it’s so tiny, playing — the kids — my older cousins would play ball and they would watch us in the summertime and all of a sudden this motorcycle, this thing, this noisy thing, rolled up into the yard and scattered all the little kids like baby chicks and we all just ran crying and he went around and around and around and around and around and then he went up to one of the kids and said what’s today and the kid said Monday and he said call me Mr. Monday and tried to run over him and our cousins grabbed us and then he drove off and I said to my older cousin, who was that, what is that, and he said po-lice. He told me it was the po-lice, so from then on in my mind, I associated po-lice with Mr. Monday who I found out — I don’t even know if his name was Monday, but he would do that on whatever day it was, go around and people would be sitting on the stoop and he would run up and say bad things to them, so that gave me some bad — that was a very bad experience.
And then there was the other one that I recall very well when I was working for this white family when I was about eleven and I was supposed to baby sit with their little kid and iron clothes while I was babysitting daytime in the summer, and I discovered there were some record albums on the shelf and I started playing them while I was working and I really loved one particular one and one day the woman came home and I said I had a great time today. I found this wonderful album here, you know. I really love this music, it’s great, it’s great, and she snatched it out of my hand and said you shouldn’t be listening to that, who told you you could listen to that? Leave those records alone and she said you just leave them alone, that’s not for you and I was very hurt because I didn’t know what I’d done. I mean, I knew I’d done something wrong, very wrong, and I went home and I told my Aunt Serena and she said, gal, you stay out of those white folks’ things and as I told somebody, I’d stay out of white folks’ things or if I don’t, I don’t tell them I’ve been in them, but it was mainly — this was one of Beethoven’s symphonies which I loved very much but every time I hear it now, I think about that woman telling me that that wasn’t for me, so maybe some of these things, the accumulation of them in some way, had something to do with the sense I have of injustice needing righting in the world, but I must tell you that I also continued to work there and I continued to play the music when she wasn’t there.
BOND: And she never caught you again?
BOND: Think about this—what do you see as the difference between vision, philosophy and style? How do the three interact for you—vision, philosophy, style?
BERRY: Well, philosophy to my mind is the contextual framework within which you operate and there’s just certain things up with which you will not put or certain things you believe in and vision is looking at where you are and looking where people are who you care about and figuring out how do you get to the next level, how do you make— How do you solve something? How do you get something done? Being able to see what might work and what won’t work and leadership style is how you go about getting those things done and some people do it in a way that prods people. Other people do it by leading by example. Other people are—
I mean, it just depends on what your style is but you must have— Everybody’s got a particular leadership style, but if you don’t have vision, you know, as the Bible says, the people perish and if you don’t have a— If your contextual framework is awry, none of the other pieces will fall into place.
BOND: So these three things work in sort of a mutually reinforcing way for you?
BOND: The style which is the way you do things.
BERRY: The style is risk taking. The style is not caring about consequences. The style is being willing to go the last mile. The style is being willing to be attacked or being willing to be vilified or as Minerva used to say to me, when you’re in the limelight, you make a good target. Remembering that. The leadership style is let us all go and do what we must do no matter what the outcome is, you know, though the heavens may fall, but not silly risk taking. The leadership style is also sitting down and thinking strategically about when is the best time to do something and how can you best win as opposed to losing.
BOND: Now, how would you describe the vision that guides your life? What is that vision?
BERRY: The vision is that if you — that it is possible to open again what I call windows of opportunity for people who have been dis-served and not given opportunity sufficiently in my opinion. If enough good people would get together and be persuaded to do something and it’s not just a matter of information. You know, I used to think that if people had enough information they would act but that’s not true. It’s how do you inspire people, how do you compel them to do something. The squeaky wheel gets the oil, but that you can.
Right now, for example, I think we’re in a period in which windows of opportunity have been opened for a whole lot of people, but they’ve been closed for a lot of other folks who’ve been sort of left behind and the question is how do you get those who’ve moved on to understand what is necessary and that they ought to do something that makes sense about the people who have not been pulled along and that they don’t make excuses and think up rationales that make it — rationales that make them feel comfortable with not doing the hard things which is where you need to attack, you attack; where you need to confront, you confront; where you need to explain, you explain; you do whatever is necessary but don’t think — don’t blame the victim as it were and say, oh, well, these people — or blame other people, and that’s where we are right now and so the vision is how do you — that you can do it. The problem is figuring out how you can do it.
BOND: Now, has your vision changed over time?
BOND: How so?
BERRY: Lots of ways. As I told you, my vision when Brown was decided was to burrow. The whole world is going to change and all race and equality and every other problem is going to be solved.
BOND: But you were a child. You were a child, so that’s excusable.
BOND: But what would make you change your vision at a later period?
BERRY: And then at a later period I felt very hopeful like a lot of people did at the time the whole civil rights movement and after that, and then I felt despairing as I learned more about how complicated everything was and as I learned the truth of when you overcome some, it’s hard to keep on overcoming. People start feeling comfortable with the overcoming they’ve already done. And that complicates matters, so that’s when I started changing my vision and modifying and saying what else is necessary to make you go the next step. But then I sort of think things do go in cycles. That’s where I am now, that things do go in cycles and you should never feel down when something isn’t working because there’ll be another time when it will.
BOND: So your vision is adaptable?
BOND: What works here may not work here, but there’s always here — a third place?
BOND: Do you have a vision of what ought to happen, what the world ought to be like even in the perfect world? What would that be like, and how does your vision instruct you with getting from here to there?
BERRY: I think several things, to try to be concrete. On questions of gender equality, I think that men and women ought to understand that they both are responsible for taking care of children and that it’s not just a woman’s role and that women can never be equal unless we understand that and not so much that men understand it, but that women understand it. And that women should — and, so, both men and women then have these responsibilities.
I think that on questions of racial equality we have to get over using specious reasons I call them, for denying opportunity to people. For example, in higher education, we argue that standardized test scores are the holy grail for deciding whether somebody should be admitted. That’s what people argue and almost everybody I know, including me, knows somebody who got admitted or they encountered who had great standardized test scores and didn’t do very well and other people who had lousy ones and were really smart people who did very well and we all know this but we still go around denying opportunity to people based on test scores. We’re in denial about a lot of different things. I think opening up opportunity to people in a real way is what I think should happen in a perfect world. I think —
So, I see these as goals but my vision is simply a world where barriers, where discrimination, invidious discrimination, doesn’t exist and where specious rationales are not presented for denying opportunity and where people can sort of decide what they want to do and where I would like the Human Rights Covenant, something like the Human Rights Covenant of the United Nations, to apply generally to everyone, that people do have a right to decent food and housing and health care wherever they are and that there’re certain minimal things that people ought to have.
BOND: Some people characterize making leaders in three separate ways: One: great people cause great events; two: movements make leaders; or three: the confluence of unpredictable events creates leaders appropriate to the times. Which of these fits you?
BERRY: I think it’s number three.
BOND: Number three?
BERRY: Confluence of —
BOND: Unpredictable events creates leaders appropriate for the time? Well, let me argue with you. Your childhood experiences, the racism, the deprivation that you suffered, this wasn’t really predictable, was it? Or was it?
BERRY: It was unpredictable.
BOND: It was unpredictable? Okay. And those unpredictable events helped to mold you into who you are today.
BERRY: The person I am, yes.
BOND: The person you are today.
BERRY: Although they happened to other people and it didn’t mold them.
BOND: Indeed so.
BERRY: Into the person I am.
BOND: I guess that’s what I’m reaching for. Why, again, did this have an affect on you and didn’t have an affect on the next person?
BERRY: If I could answer that, I would be wiser than Solomon. I don’t know the answer, so I always think these things are a matter of nature and nurture and so it’s a matter of how people respond to events.
BOND: Okay. So the combination of nature and nurture make you or the next person—
BERRY: Anyone, who they are.
BOND: That person into who they are. So, if you look back over your path to leadership, how would you summarize that or characterize that?
BERRY: I had no intention of being a leader of anything. It never occurred to me and I’m still not sure I am, but I had no intention. I was going to have this quiet life of being a professor, of writing dull books which I do write.
BOND: They’re not dull.
BERRY: And living in my study and talking to the students and that would be the end of it and then things happened, you know, things were offered to me or happened to me and I was put in positions when I, you know, when I became provost and when I became chancellor, issues of justice came to me and my response to those issues made me into what some people call a leader.
BOND: But again, let me dispute this here. These are leadership positions that you occupied. By the nature of the position, you’re a leader; even if you’ve done nothing with them, you’d still be a leader.
BERRY: I’d still be a leader.
BOND: But even prior to that, in the classroom, I’d argue that you were a leader then. You were imputing knowledge, passing on knowledge to these students of yours in such a way I’m guessing maybe without intending to say to them here’s what others have done, here’s an example you can follow. Is that true?
BERRY: That’s probably right.
BOND: So even before you had the title that said this person is a leader, you were exercising leadership.
BERRY: I think the point at which you figure out whether somebody has become a leader is to look at a set of circumstances and see what their responses are, because some people will respond to the same circumstances by either simply walking away or not passing anything on, so it depends on how they respond.
BOND: Now, what effect did the sort of burgeoning civil rights movement have on you? It was happening heavily in Nashville where you’re from. It was happening all over the south, happening on the college campuses, university campuses where you were. What did this do to you?
BERRY: Well, I was in Alabama the day that Autherine Lucy was denied admission to the University there. I happened to be passing through. We were on a bus, Greyhound bus trip, and stopped at the bus station and the police were out in large numbers and they were yelling and using the “N” word about that gal who was trying to get into the University and all the rest of it and so we heard all about that and felt those tensions.
I was at Howard for much of the civil — the sit-ins and the movement and many of the people who were my classmates and especially in the philosophy department got very much involved in the movement. Stokely Carmichael, Courtland Cox, and others, and so I was very much in touch with them.
I went to Michigan and was there when the March on Washington took place and I was there all during the rest of that period and got very much involved also in the anti-war movement.
I also remember when Martin Luther King was assassinated. My friend Gerald Poindexter and I, a law school chum, one of the few black students in the law school and I were sitting out on the bench in front of the Student Union and white students came out cavorting in some festival that they had, pretending they were Indians or something, and someone walked up and told us that he had been assassinated and we were, of course, in shock like everybody else. We went into the law school and got further information and some law school classmates came up and hugged us; others were saying nasty things about Martin Luther King to each other and we came out and sat back on the bench with our notebooks and started writing what we called an article expressing all of our bitterness about what was going on, which we said we would publish. We didn’t.
The anti-war movement, I was very much involved and interested in trying to end the war in Vietnam. I was so much interested that I decided to be a reporter one summer and went to Vietnam and got some local newspapers to credential me as their reporter so that I could write dispatches from the front, so I was deeply affected by everything that happened during that period.
BOND: I thought I knew you pretty well but I didn’t know about this Vietnam experience. Where’d you go?
BERRY: I was everywhere in South Vietnam from the Delta up to the DMZ. I was with the Marines. I was with the Navy. I was with the Army. I was out in the field. I went everywhere and I wrote articles which they published in the Michigan Daily and I usually would start out by saying today I’m in X place and we’re not winning the war.
BOND: You ought to collect these and have them published sometime.
BERRY: Some day I should do that.
BOND: Do other people look at you and give you legitimacy as a leader or even for yourself, is this because of your ability to persuade people to follow your vision or in your ability to articulate the agenda of a larger movement?
BERRY: I think it’s my —from what people have told me, it’s my ability to put my finger on, as someone told me, precisely what is wrong and precisely what needs to be done and to say what should be done about it, whether anybody does it or not and my willingness to do that without worrying about who will agree or who will disagree and to find ways that the agenda can be implemented and that I always — and that I’m always eager to help and eager to do something so people seem to think that I have an ability to get, as someone put it, to cut right to the heart of whatever the issue or the problem is.
BOND: I remember when you were in a dispute at the Civil Rights Commission and a newspaper account instructed me that you were wrong, the President was right, and then I read your description and it instantly reversed my idea of what was at issue there and I always admired you for that because you reversed my reality or you showed me a true reality instead of the false reality I’d been led to believe.
BERRY: Oh, my goodness. Well, maybe that’s what people mean then.
BOND: I think so. I think so.
BOND: Now, what is the philosophy that guides you through life?
BERRY: Tell the truth as I see it. Try not — give other people a chance to reach a conclusion before I tell them what my conclusion is because sometimes they’ll get it and go on and always be willing to help people, and always willing not to take credit for it.
BOND: When you’re having bad moments or moments of alienation, does this sustain you, this philosophy sustain you?
BERRY: What sustains me is I really believe that in the fullness of time things will change and right will overcome wrong. I really believe that so that even when I’m down, even in the worst of times, I always think that somehow things will change and what I think needs to happen will happen and most of the time it does. It takes a while but it happens.
BOND: So, would it be fair to say you’re an optimist, an optimistic person?
BERRY: I’m an optimist, yes.
BOND: And are you, I’m sorry to say, never disappointed or —
BERRY: Oh, I’m often disappointed. Most of the time what I’m disappointed with is when I think other people understand and that they’re willing to go the last mile, too, and I found out they’re not.
BOND: And they didn’t understand, they didn't understand.
BERRY: I’m never disappointed by my enemies because I don’t expect anything of them except opposition and I never underestimate what they will do. I’m only disappointed when people who I think are allies turn out to falter or not be willing to go the last mile or something, when I misjudge them and then I’m disappointed.
BOND: Well, let me shift gears here a little bit. How does race consciousness affect your work? Are you a leader who advances issues of race or issues of society or both?
BERRY: I think both. I’m race conscious because of my own experiences, background, and there’s no way not to be race conscious. I am gender conscious because I am female in a society in which females have been ascribed in certain ways and I have to be conscious of that. I’m conscious of injustice done to anyone even if it’s not somebody who I share with racially or in terms of gender because it’s injustice and so I’m concerned about race. I used to say that all the time when I was at the Civil Rights Commission. We did a lot of work on race but I would tell the commissioners, you know, we’re not a race commission, you know, we have to be concerned about gender, we have to be concerned about people who are older Americans. We’ve got to be concerned about — and we’re not a black commission. We’re concerned about all these issues of justice and so I am race conscious but I’m also concerned about justice and society in general.
BOND: Is there such a thing as a race-transcending leader?
BERRY: There are people who think they’re race-transcending leaders or who hold themselves out to be throughout the history of people in the world who hold themselves out to transcend their race just as there are people who hold themselves out to transcend their gender. They don’t really, but there’re some people who believe that— who will be described as race-transcending persons and what that means is they don’t seem to be race conscious or they don’t talk about it or they don’t push it or they don’t try to advance it and therefore others see them as someone who’s trying to be race transcending but they’re never really race transcending if you follow the issue of what happens to the person or what their whole life history is in the end.
As John Hope Franklin often says, you know, when I go to bed at night, even if I’m 90 something, I’m still that little black boy after all is said and done and after everything that has happened, so people aren’t really race transcending. They can pretend to be. They can have a pose to be. They can try to make others feel comfortable with them by being. There’re all kinds of things that you can do, but you don’t really transcend it.
BOND: Do you have a different kind leadership when you’re dealing with groups that are all black or mixed race or all white? Are you different in these situations?
BERRY: Well, I communicate with people I hope and I try, in ways that will let them understand me and I try to sense — it’s just like sensing an audience when you’re speaking, like what — how will I talk to this audience to make them understand what I’m saying, so if I’m talking to an audience of people who are all black and they have certain common experiences, I know that there are certain things I can say to them that I don’t have to explain.
If I’m talking to white people, there’re certain things that I may need to explain. I may not. You can’t always make that assumption so I don’t think the message is any different; I just think the way of communicating it may be different.
BOND: I was thinking about the recent example of Hillary Clinton in Selma, adopting this, what —
BERRY: Oh, you mean dialect.
BOND: Some kind of dialect and the crowd listening to her responds enthusiastically. Now, I thought that was because she was quoting a well-known hymn — “I Don’t Feel No Ways Tired” and I mean, that’s an automatic response with the audience but she came in for a lot of criticism for that.
BERRY: And I thought, too, like you, when I heard it, I thought it was because she was quoting the hymn and that’s the way the hymn goes and that’s the way the audience saw it.
BOND: Indeed so.
BERRY: That was there.
BOND: Yeah. Is there a performative element in leadership? Do leaders have to perform a different way to different audiences?
BERRY: Some of the leaders in the past that I know about and studied were very aware of this. Du Bois used to talk about it all the time and that he taught himself to be able to project and explain things to a larger audience than a little group of intellectuals and that that required some training and some work but that that was necessary if you wanted to be in the arena and you wanted to talk to people and have them understand you and engaged, if you wanted to be engaged, so there is a performative element. I don’t mean that you have to be false, but you have to be able to connect with people and that’s absolutely necessary.
BOND: In challenging the civil rights establishment, William Allen is quoted. He writes of a danger in continually thinking in terms of race or gender and writes, “until we learn once again to use the language of American freedom in an appropriate way that embraces us all, we’re going to continue to harm this country.” Now, is there a danger of divisiveness if we focus on black leadership?
BERRY: First of all, talking about race is not something that people who are visible minorities, as they call them in Canada — I sort of like that phrase— want to do. It is because we are the people who were ascribed and defined and confined and so we talk about our own condition and how we are the negative other in America and how we — so we talk about it not because we decided to talk about it. We talk about it because it’s the condition we were put in that we try to overcome and so American freedom has never existed in any pure form going back to the days of slavery until now and what it all is about is perfecting American freedom, making it, perfecting it, and so to talk about race doesn’t mean you’re denying American freedom. It means you’re trying to make it better.
BOND: Do black leaders have an obligation to help other African Americans and if so, is there any point at which this obligation ends and you can direct your impulses toward a larger audience?
BERRY: I think leaders have a responsibility to work for society in general and for African Americans, both, and not either or because to the extent certain issues and problems, for example. If you talk about the absence of health insurance for people, there’re, what, 40-some million people who don’t have health insurance. A lot of them are African Americans but a lot of them are not. To the extent that you are able to have health insurance for everybody, it would benefit African Americans but a lot of other people, too. It’s just a general social policy or if people are given certain basic elements of subsistence, it would help everyone including African Americans, but the’re some things that are specifically problems of African Americans, that if African Americans themselves don’t pay attention to them and devote their attention, how do you expect anybody else to?
BOND: Looking back over your life to date and it’s going on for many many years after today, what do you see as your greatest —
BERRY: You think so, huh?
BOND: I know so. What do you see as your greatest contribution as an African American leader?
BERRY: I have no idea. I hope what I have done is to say to people that it’s possible to be a scholar and an activist. It’s possible to survive even if you’re attacked. If you continue to stand up on issues anyway, you can survive and you can lead a relatively pleasant life despite it all.
BOND: Are there moments that you’re particularly proud of that you say, you know, I’m so happy I did that or said that then?
BERRY: Well, I like the fight that I made against Ronald Reagan when he was president, when he gutted the Civil Rights Commission, and when we stood up and said, you know, he wanted to turn it into an outhouse public relations operation for the White House and I liked the fact that I sued him and that I won the case because it was important even though we lost most of the Commission for a while and it’s still not righted. It was something that had to be done.
I also liked the fact that I took the Commission to Florida in 2001 and investigated the election down there even though the Bush people got very angry with me and even though people wrote all kinds of vitriolic things about me and said all kinds of things about me because I thought that one of the most important things the Civil Rights Commission did over the years was to hear from people, have their government body listen to them when they had been mistreated and to subpoena folks and have them come in and stand up and have to explain themselves, so I thought that that was very important and it did make some changes. Not, you know, we got a lot of other changes to make, so I think that— And both of those occasions, it was very difficult to do, but I’m happy I did it.
BOND: Are there things that we don’t know anything about that you know about that you’re particularly proud of doing?
BERRY: Things that you don’t know —
BOND: That the public doesn’t know.
BERRY: That the public doesn’t know.
BOND: The Florida trip, the suit against Ronald Reagan, these are well-known things.
BERRY: The public knows those.
BERRY: Yeah. Well, if the public doesn’t know about it, some of those things that I told you earlier that I don’t take credit for.
BOND: What about the Free South Africa movement?
BERRY: I would say that that is another example of something that I did that I think helped to make a great change and it was very important and that I didn’t have to do. I mean, I didn’t have to do any of these things and I was very happy when Randall Robinson asked me if I’d help him and if I’d be willing to go to jail and be willing to challenge those folks and I’d been working on the South African issue for a long time and there were people who attacked me and said I shouldn’t have been doing that and all the rest of it, but I think it did help to get sanctions and it did help to get freedom from apartheid.
BOND: It undoubtedly did and it was so simple.
BERRY: It was simple, wasn’t it?
BOND: But it took somebody like you and Randall to get it going. I even— My little daughter who was under age came up here with me.
BERRY: And got arrested.
BOND: And got arrested.
BERRY: Yes. And the first— The thing that’s so interesting is before we got arrested and started it and we had talked to all kinds of people about getting arrested and nobody wanted to get arrested.
BOND: And then it became fashionable.
BERRY: After we got arrested and after it became worldwide news, you know, people would call up and where can I get arrested?
BOND: Yes. When’s my day coming. What day can I have.
BOND: Yes. In a book called Race Matters, Cornel [West] writes about a crisis of leadership and he says, “it’s a symptom of black distance from a vibrant tradition of resistance, from a vital community bonded by ethical ideals and from a credible sense of political struggle.” Do you see this crisis in black leadership today?
BERRY: Right. What’s the major problem, in my opinion, that we have in opening up the windows of opportunity wide again, which is my agenda, is that we don’t have a civil rights movement. We have a lot of people who work on civil rights and who try to do the right thing and are supportive but many people don’t pay any attention unless something happens to them or some, you know, highly publicized thing, somebody made a comment or something like that happens, but on a day-to-day basis, we don’t have a movement. People who got through the window of opportunity are moving on. Other people don’t want to think about these issues so they say, well, you know, in time, they will disappear. So the absence of a movement cripples folks who try to do the work that needs to be done. We don’t have that sense of a movement now.
BOND: Now, what kind of leaders does contemporary society, right now, 21st century, demand and what kind of problems or how will future problems demand different styles? What’s the difference between now and, say, ten, twenty years from now?
BERRY: Now we have just the beginning and this is going to go on for another ten, twenty years, different leadership styles. We’ve got a bunch of young mayors, black mayors in different cities with different styles. The mantra is we’re going to get it done. We don’t have the baggage of the past. We’ve got a bunch of young people around us and we’re all going to get all these great things done. They may get some things done but if they don’t listen to people who have experience, I think that some of them aren’t going to find it as easy as they think. Right now, it’s insipient, but there is a need for a leadership style that tries to combine old ways of doing things. When I say old, I don’t mean just for civil rights movement, for any movement, a direct action is a tried and true strategy for movements in general. New ways of doing things. Trying to find ways to do what you want to do and get it financed to help people without abandoning what you need to do and there’re all these educated black folk who the civil rights movement made it possible for them to go to the universities and get degrees and there’re all kinds of fields and they’re doing all kinds of things in the corporate world and everywhere else so they ought to be able to put their heads together and come up with some strategies. That’s not the problem. The problem is inspiring people to believe that they need to put their heads together to come up with some strategies and I don’t know who or what will make that happen.
BOND: In the future, how can we be sure that we have effective leaders? Is there some way to foster leadership? There are schools that have sprung up, leadership schools. Is this something you can teach?
BERRY: I think you can teach what seems fair and what isn’t, right and wrong, but the more I think about it, part of it is some people have what it takes to be able to withstand what is necessary to be a leader and trying to make social change and other people don’t but there will be people because there always are. I don’t think they’ll come necessarily from a leadership school.
BOND: So are you saying you don’t have to grow them but they just grow?
BERRY: When you see them, like when Minerva [Hawkins] I guess when she saw me, she told me this when I became an adult, she already figured out that I had what it took. I didn’t know I had what it took, but she knew and so she did everything she could to make sure that I understood how to do things and then that I also knew what brickbats would come and all that. She just, you know, she did that her whole life and for me. So she nurtured me in a sense and she said, yeah, I was a diamond in the rough and she saw me and she knew, so when you see people who have what it takes, try to grow them, but if they don’t have what it takes, then it’s going to be kind of hard to, you know —
BOND: Do you think — it seems to me you’re saying such people will come.
BERRY: Oh, yes. They will. They always have.
BOND: Do they need nurturing? They need pushing?
BERRY: Oh, yes.
BOND: They may need developing, but they will come?
BERRY: And when you see them and they need it, do it.
BOND: All right. Mary Frances Berry, thank you for being with us.
BERRY: Thank you.