Berry Argues for a New Social Movement in Black History Month Keynote

Feb. 19, 2007 -- Speaking at the midway point of the University of Virginia’s observance of Black History Month, former U.S. Civil Rights Commissioner and activist Mary Frances Berry delivered her keynote speech Feb. 15 on race, gender and political progress in this country.

In her talk, Berry cited examples of successful African-Americans such as Oprah Winfrey, Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, Tiger Woods and Barack Obama, and said society has made “great progress” in moving towards equal opportunity and fairness for all individuals. Despite this progress in terms of women, African-Americans and Muslims being elected to Congress, Berry said, “There are still [many] issues we have to deal with — we’re not saved.”

Berry cited such issues as health, insurance, education, globalization and unemployment, immigration, voting rights and war.

Addressing health, Berry cautioned that AIDS is an ongoing problem made worse by lack of information and societal fears about sexuality. She also raised the issue of health insurance, saying that there are many poor mothers with sick children in this country who attempt to live with “unlivable wages.” This is “a very real matter which in part relates how low the U.S. is in child welfare” when compared to the world, Berry said.

Berry said unemployment continues to be a prominent issue in today’s society, especially for African-Americans, whose jobless rate is approximately twice that of white Americans. Although the “blanket statement” that immigrants take jobs that Americans opt not to take is widely accepted in today’s society, Berry said people should consider the possible reasons why Americans wouldn’t want to take specific jobs. 

Another area mentioned by Berry as a right of all individuals is education — a viewpoint she said most Americans would share. She said that while there have been many federal proposals made to improve education in this country, each time, “the same promises are made.” According to Berry, the focus of education should be on the teachers, who “need to have enough time and space [in order] to give time to the students.” While there is always a significant amount of talk of teacher accountability, Berry said, there is less emphasis on the support and environment provided for teachers beforehand that would foster positive teacher-student interactions.

In higher education, Berry spoke of the issues of race and diversity on the university level. Affirmative action, which Berry said has become a “bad word” in today’s society, is necessary for education’s availability to all, including minority groups.

An area where Berry said the liberty of Americans has been suppressed in is the war in Iraq. Nevertheless, “we’re in it, and then we’re told we can’t get out of it because things will be worse,” she said. Acccording to Berry, what this country needs is a “social movement,” on a scale that has not been seen since the Civil Rights Movement. 

“Most of the great social change that has taken place in this country has come as a result of social movement,” Berry said.

Berry also stressed the need to become involved politically, particularly by exercising the right to vote. “Don’t ever believe that voting is unimportant,” she told the audience. At the current moment, the nation’s collective task, according to Berry, is to help ourselves and each other “spread the idea of justice” for all individuals.

Berry’s talk, held in Old Cabell Auditorium, was sponsored by the University Programs Council and the Office of African-American Affairs as a part of the Thomas Jefferson Visiting Lecture Series. The evening began with a performance by Black Voices, a student choir at the University.