On November 21, 1984, the night before Thanksgiving, police were called to the South African Embassy in Washington, D.C. The four people who had just met with the South African ambassador refused to leave until South Africa promised to release all of its political prisoners, including Nelson Mandela who had, by then, been in prison more than 20 years.

Once the police had been called, one of the four, Georgetown University law professor Eleanor Holmes Norton, left the embassy and called the media. The press arrived in time to see the police lead three handcuffed people into a paddy wagon—and to capture the scene on camera. The three were Congressman Walter Fauntroy, executive director of TransAfrica Randall Robinson, and U.S. Civil Rights Commissioner Mary Frances Berry (Ph.D. 1966, J.D. 1970).

The event had been carefully orchestrated to land on a traditionally slow news day, and the group’s planning paid off. Because the next day was Thanksgiving and people were at home fixing food and watching TV, viewers saw the whole scene on the news.

The protest marked the beginning of the Free South Africa Movement. At 4:15 the next day and for more than a year after, people staged protests outside the South African embassy. In D.C., the protests resulted in more than 4,500 arrests. Rosa Parks was arrested on December 1, the anniversary of her arrest in Montgomery. Celebrities such as Harry Belafonte, Gloria Steinem, Arthur Ashe, and Stevie Wonder flew in to be arrested, which helped to keep the protests in the news. The protests inspired similar anti-apartheid demonstrations around the world.

“If you’re going to help people in their struggle,” Berry said later in an interview with Ms. Magazine, “you should be smart for them. If your demonstration doesn’t get media coverage, you might as well not have it.”

Berry built her career on such smarts. With a B.A. in history from Howard University and a Ph.D. in history from U-M, Berry took a teaching position at Central Michigan University, and then at Eastern Michigan University while she got a law degree at U-M. She was then hired as associate professor at the University of Maryland where she later became Provost. She became chancellor of the University of Colorado, the first woman of any race to lead a major research university. As Assistant Secretary for Education in the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, Berry became the first black woman to serve as the United States’ chief educational officer. She was a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights for more than 20 years, and spent eleven of those years as the Commission’s first black woman chair. “The experience of being first is challenging,” jokes Berry, “because you wouldn’t want to be the last for any good reason.

“But,” she adds, “first or last, being true to one’s convictions is important.”

Coretta Scott King, widow of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., walks a picket line with others to protest apartheid in South Africa, Nov. 29, 1984, at the South African Embassy in Washington.
(AP Photo/Charles Tasnadi)


Berry’s commitment to her convictions is apparent. As President Jimmy Carter’s appointment as assistant secretary for education, Berry worked to improve educational opportunities for minorities and women, increased funding for educating people with disabilities, and fought to strengthen historically black universities. She also helped to pass legislation that created the Department of Education, which elevated the department head to a cabinet-level position. And then she accepted President Carter’s next invitation: to join the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

The Woman the President Could Not Fire

Over the 24 years she served on the Commission, Berry had occasion to disagree with both Democratic and Republican presidents, but the most memorable conflict was between Berry and President Reagan. President Carter had asked the Commission to conduct an affirmative-action study, and the conclusions supported affirmative action’s role in correcting the effects of discrimination. President Reagan had taken a stance against affirmative action during his campaign, and when he took office he tried to fire Berry and break up the commission. Berry sued the administration in federal court, and won.

“Reagan told a reporter he fired me because I served at his pleasure, and I wasn’t giving him pleasure,” she says. “He obviously didn’t accept the idea of an independent commission with the duty to monitor the executive branch. Thankfully federal district judge Norma Holloway Johnson decided that a watchdog cannot be fired for biting.”

The experience didn’t dissuade Berry from taking positions she believed were right or from refusing to compromise these positions once she’d claimed them. As a result, Berry, a registered Independent, has taken heat from both sides of the aisle. “If people on the far left and the right have bad things to say about me, I must be doing something right,” she says.

Now a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, Berry’s scholarship reflects many of the same concerns she worked to address through public service. She has written twelve books on topics that include racism and sexism in the law, women’s rights, childcare, and voting rights. She has written op-eds in support of gay rights and a reparation superfund. One current concern is the erosion of employee protections brought about by the gig economy.

As she approaches the end of her eighth decade, Berry has some advice for people looking to create change.

“Timing is important. Use every tool in the carpenter’s tool box. Augment marches with sit-ins, fasts, and other types of theatre. Have a simple, clearly stated goal. Stay on message. Establish ties with receptive politicians who can act legislatively if there is a policy goal. And remember,” she concludes, “that protesting to educate the public is a worthwhile goal.” 


Top photo by Jim Abbott