Mary Frances Berry: The Historian as Social Activist

Historians in the News

Johanna Neuman, in the LAT (12-4-04):

President Bush plans to name a new chairman and vice chairman of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission as early as Monday, a move that could end the tumultuous reign of its current chairwoman, Mary Frances Berry.

Berry, who has been a member of the commission for 24 of its 47 years, has been a bane to presidents who tried to fire her or dodge her. She has been targeted in repeated Government Accountability Office reports alleging mismanagement of the agency. She has been the butt of biting comments, such as Salon magazine's jab that she is "a vitriolic brawler."

The U.S. Civil Rights Commission, created by President Eisenhower in 1957, is charged with investigating complaints of racial discrimination. With a budget of $9 million and a staff of 70, it has no enforcement powers. But the agency's effect sometimes has been greater than its size.

After the 2000 elections, the commission's report on disenfranchised voters in Florida was one of the forces that propelled Congress to enact reforms, allowing voters whose eligibility was in question to cast provisional ballots.....

Battling civil rights abuses and official Washington was an assignment tailor-made for Berry, 66, a historian and writer who was born in segregationist Nashville. She spent her early years in an orphanage with her brother before her mother reclaimed the children when Berry was 4 years old.

As the combative head of the commission, she embarrassed Carter by returning from a trip to Beijing extolling the virtues of communist education, with its ability to "develop what they call socialist consciousness and culture."

President Reagan tried to fire her and two other commissioners on grounds that such appointees served at the pleasure of the president. Berry took him to court -- and won. "I'm proud of Reagan firing me for criticizing his civil rights policy," she said. "I think he told the press that I served at the pleasure of the president and that I wasn't giving him any pleasure."

She lashed out at President Clinton for his treatment of black female appointees, including former Surgeon Gen. Jocelyn Elders and Lani Guinier, whose appointment to be assistant attorney general for civil rights was withdrawn as too controversial.

Fireworks erupted again three years ago when President Bush named Peter Kirsanow, a black Republican lawyer from Cleveland, to the commission. Berry refused to seat him, taking the administration to court. This time, she lost.


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