Skip to main content

Civil rights activist Mary Frances Berry to speak at ASU

Mary Frances Berry
February 10, 2015

Mary Frances Berry says we live in a society where civil rights have advanced over the years, but many concerns still remain.

Berry will share her views about civil rights, the fight to obtain justice and opportunity for all, and the effect of economic and societal forces on social movements, as part of the 2015 John J. Rhodes Lecture in Public Policy & American Institutions presented by Barrett, the Honors College at Arizona State University.

“We’ve made progress on LGBT rights and same sex-marriage, and we’re waiting to hear what the (United States) Supreme Court will say on the same sex-marriage issue this year,” said the former chairwoman of the U.S. Commission of Civil Rights, referring to the expectation that the high court will hear oral arguments in four consolidated same-sex marriage cases in April and issue a decision by late June.

The court will rule on the power of the states to ban same-sex marriages and to refuse to recognize such marriages performed in another state. Currently 36 states allow same-sex marriage, with bans remaining in the other 14, but all are under court challenge.

The fact that the issue has reached the ears of the High Court justices signifies progress on this significant civil rights issue, Berry said, but “we still have an awful lot of work to do in this and other areas.”

The lecture is scheduled for 7 p.m., Feb. 25, at the Galvin Playhouse on the ASU Tempe campus. Admission is free and open to the public. A book signing will immediate follow the lecture. Tickets are available here.

Berry spent nearly 25 years on the Civil Rights Commission, serving as chair from 1993 to 2004. She has written 10 books on racism, women’s rights and black history, and she co-founded the Free South Africa Movement, which worked to end apartheid in South Africa. She currently is the Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought and Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

Berry said dissension within communities regarding relations with police – especially in cities where unarmed black men have been killed in confrontations with officers – is at the forefront of the civil rights debate. Women’s rights, access to quality education and income inequality also continue to be concerns, she said.

“Police are patrolling in communities where people are living in difficult circumstances, working with low skills and earning below the poverty level. A lot of clashes are with people who are stressed and marginalized. We need to ask what we can do about social ills that lead to these situations,” she said.

“My approach is there should be a middle ground. You need peaceful protest to point out what is wrong, but you also need discussion to advance ideas for solutions. Through dialogue we can gain understanding and move toward solutions,” she added.

Berry is a proponent of civilian review boards that have the power to investigate and respond to complaints and advise governmental bodies on civil rights issues.

She also supports an increase in the federal minimum wage, believing that higher income for workers helps lead to financial and social stability. Immigration reform also is on her mind.

“With immigration, everyone talks about securing the border. You can secure the border, but people will still come. Unless something is done about the injustices and dangerous living conditions in the countries people come from, they will keep crossing borders,” she said.

In addition to the lecture, Barrett Honors College and the Justice and Social Inquiry program at the ASU School of Social Transformation present "Civil Leadership and What It Means To be A Catalyst for Change: A breakfast conversation with Dr. Mary Frances Berry and community leaders," from 9 to 10 a.m., Feb. 25, in room 135 at West Hall, located at 1000 S. Cady Mall on the ASU Tempe campus.

Community leaders invited to participate are Lorenzo Sierra, a member of the Avondale City Council and education advocate; Lawrence Robinson, senior policy adviser to Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton focusing on education and homeless policies; Andrei Cherny, founder of Aspiration Partners, LLC, a trust-based investment community focusing on the working poor and income inequality; and Anne Herbert, director for undergraduate law programs at ASU.

The panel discussion is free and open to the public, however reservations are requested. To RSVP, email