A civil rights icon and a young novelist reflect on their journeys for Susquehanna's Martin Luther King Jr. commemoration.

Teacher, Author, Civil Rights Activist Speaks of “Fire Shut Up in My Bones”

Spring 2015 Issue

Teacher, Author, Civil Rights Activist Speaks of “Fire Shut Up in My Bones”

Although he towered over her in physical stature, Susquehanna President L. Jay Lemons told the woman sharing the stage with him for the university’s 2015
Winter Convocation and Martin Luther King Jr. Day commemoration, “I look up to you.”

Mary Frances Berry

As the keynote speaker for the event, civil rights activist, author and University of Pennsylvania history professor Mary Frances Berry educated her audience about the decades-long civil rights struggle and the key players in the movement.

Like Lemons, she is a storyteller, who shared highlights of her past and imparted words of advice to the audience of several hundred who filled Degenstein Center Theater for her address. Berry worked side-by-side for many years with the giants of the civil rights movement, fondly recalling Martin (Luther King Jr.), Coretta (Scott King), Nelson (Mandela), Desmond (Tutu) and others. She was arrested and jailed more than once for her work to support the cause, from the United States to South Africa. She has faced racism and discrimination and encountered many obstacles along the way, yet this unassuming and engaging woman, with a quick wit, is clearly a person who has not only persevered but has emerged with a clear sense of self. Born in 1938, Berry grew up in segregated Nashville, Tenn., with three strikes against her. She was poor. She was black. And she was a woman.

Raised by a single mother, she and one of her brothers spent time in an orphanage after their father left the family and their mother struggled to make ends meet. Her earliest memories are of her brother crying because he was hungry.

Despite the many challenges she faced, she went to college, earned her doctorate and law degrees and became a teacher, author, university provost and chancellor. She served as assistant secretary of education under President Jimmy Carter and was chair of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission for 11 years.

“Yes, there have been times when I’ve been treated unfairly,” she said during an interview prior to her public appearance. “But when your earliest memories are of your brother crying from hunger, there’s not a whole lot worse that can happen to you.”

Nonetheless, Berry has vivid recollections of two early experiences with racism. The first occurred when she was about 5 years old. She had just moved out of the orphanage and was staying with her aunt. She and her cousins were playing in the yard when a man riding a motorcycle and wearing a police uniform drove through the middle of the yard, interrupting their play.

“He stopped and asked us what day it was. We said Monday, so he said, ‘Call me Mr. Monday,’ and then he coldly laughed and drove off. I was scared as hell and he thought it was funny,” Berry recalled. The man was a police officer known for driving through black neighborhoods and intimidating both children and adults.

Return to top
View this full issue Return to Spring 2015 Issue