Reflections from MLK Day speaker Mary Frances Berry

January 13, 2021

Last Updated: January 18, 2021

Dr. Mary Frances Berry, who joined us for a virtual conversation for Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, is a professor, writer, lawyer, and activist whose career in public service has included several presidential administration appointments.

Berry writes frequently on American law and constitutional racism, gender equality and women’s rights, and other social issues.

In January of 2020, she appeared on "The Daily Show with Trevor Noah" to talk about her most recent book, “History Teaches Us to Resist: How Progressive Movements Have Succeeded in Challenging Times.”

Read on for an excerpt from their conversation.


Trevor Noah: What do you think is the biggest misconception people have about Dr. King?

Mary Frances Berry: The biggest misconception is that Martin Luther King was a dreamer who had a dream. Every time I go someplace, people get up and say, “Yes, he was a dreamer, he was always dreaming.” 

Well, that's because of the speech and the part that's taken out. Martin Luther King believed in the right to vote. The first speech he gave in Washington at the Prayer Pilgrimage in 1957, his coming out, as it were, in Washington, was about if we ever got the vote, everything would change — we'd have justice if we just got the vote. But over the years as he evolved, he saw that yes, the vote is important and we should get it and he continued to fight for it, but voting by itself isn't going to give us justice. 

And he concluded that protest is an essential ingredient of politics.

You see, politicians want two things. They want you to vote for them [so they can] get elected, and they want you to vote for them so they can get reelected. But the thing you have to want is to make them do what will give you justice and equality in this country, and they won't do that unless you make them do it. And that's where protest is involved. 

Martin Luther King believed in nonviolence. He learned about it. He believed in it. He and Coretta believed in it. It was at the center of their lives. When I say protest is an essential ingredient in politics, I mean nonviolent protest. And the book is about the kind of nonviolent protest you can engage in which will make change. It will make government officials who you elected actually do what they promised they would do. Isn't that unique? How interesting that they would actually promise to do something and even try to do it.

The other thing the book is about is how every generation has to make its own dent in the wall of injustice.

Young people, you know, have to pass it on.

Berry’s full conversation with Trevor Noah is available on YouTube.


by Emily Buckler

Two of Mary Frances Berry's most recent books. Berry gave an online address on January 18.


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