The University Record, January 24, 1994

Berry: We need right mix of good public policy and self help

By Kate Kellogg
News and Information Services

Had Martin Luther King’s fight for justice not abruptly ended in 1968, what would he be saying and doing to further that fight today?

The pattern of King’s life suggests many possibilities, according to Mary Frances Berry, U-M alumna and head of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission.

For example, “he would find the right phrase to rebuke those who say the problem of poverty among African Americans can be solved by self-help and by instilling values in their families,” she said in a Martin Luther King Jr. Day address sponsored by the University Library and the School of Information and Library Studies.

Only the right mix of good public policy and self-help can fix problems of inequality in Black communities and institutionalize the aims of the civil rights movement, King believed. Neither approach works well without the other, Berry said.

On the self-help side, “we see ministers in those communities mentoring kids, and Black businesses providing employment opportunities for Blacks,” Berry said. But good public policy is essential to support such initiatives, she added. “If the bonding industry makes only high-risk bonds available to Black businesses, and if public officials won’t let churches offer school programs, self-help will bring only limited returns.”

During his later years, King openly criticized bad public policies that perpetuated the myth that African Americans’ problems result from some innate weakness or lack of values, Berry noted. Such criticism cost the civil rights leader acceptance by the Johnson administration, which he never regained during his lifetime.

“Many people who had criticized King while he was alive discovered they publicly loved him when he died and wanted to be the first to be photographed at his funeral,” Berry said.

King was one of the first to see the world as a global village and he could never segregate or isolate his moral concern. Berry asked the audience of about 250 persons to imagine how King would view today’s international human rights agenda.

“What would he think of our isolation from international bloodletting in post-communist regimes and of the racist treatment of people of color in Europe?” she asked. “How would he square the U.S. government’s abandonment of the Haitian refuges? He would be lying in the street in front of the White House in protest.”

Even with the increase in racial tensions, violence and hate crimes in this country, “one year after Clinton took office, there is still no assistant attorney general for civil rights and no major enforcement positions,” Berry said. African Americans also remain subject to harassment on more subtle levels “because they are perceived as being advantaged.”

Because such problems persist, the voices of young African Americans resonate with Afrocentrism and anger, Berry said. “But King would say to these young Blacks, ‘anger alienates us; we each have a responsibility to make our own dent in the wall of injustice.’”

Berry holds four degrees including a Ph.D. in history and a law degree from the U-M. In 1976, she became the first African American woman to head a major research university, the University of Colorado, and served as U.S. assistant secretary for education in the Department of Health, Education and Welfare in 1977–80. She currently is the Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought at the University of Pennsylvania.