You Should Keep It Simple When You Have A Protest Movement: An Interview with Historian Mary Frances BerryHistorians/History
tags: interview, Mary Frances Berry
Erik Moshe is an HNN Features Editor with a BA in English from George Mason University.
In her latest book, History Teaches Us To Resist: How Progressive Movements Have Succeeded In Challenging Times, historian and civil rights activist Mary Frances Berry proves how progressive movements can flourish even in conservative times. Charting and analyzing resistance movements against presidential administrations from Franklin D. Roosevelt to George W. Bush, Berry shows how resistance has led to positive change, despite the surmountable challenges along the way. Using her knowledge and experience from her sixty year career as an activist in various movements, and as someone who has served in five presidential administrations, Berry’s book supplements factual historical examples with her own insider perspective, which gives both context and personality to the text. Protest, she believes, is an essential ingredient of politics, and progressive movements can and will flourish, even in perilous times.
I spoke to Dr. Berry on the phone to discuss her latest book, and this is the conversation we had.
If you are interested in progressive change or any kind of social change, you can engage in electoral politics and elect people to office, and that’s important, but the history of policy changes is that the most important ones have been made, and the most successful attempts to have policy changes made have occurred when people have engaged in some kind of protest activities. They can be almost anything.
Usually when I say protest is an essential ingredient of politics, people think I mean that they should go somewhere and take over a building or sit in some place and go to jail, or perhaps engage in a march. That’s what immediately comes to mind, and that’s important to do, but there are other ways to protest. One can protest by calling up politicians’ offices and closing down their phone lines or email; by petitioning them in large numbers or by loudly complaining. There are all kinds of ways to protest but the essential point is that you can’t make change just by simply supporting some candidate for office and assuming that that’s the end of it.
The March on Washington movement wanted FDR to order jobs for black people in the defense industry. How did that movement turn out?
The March on Washington movement is an example of a successful organized protest that really, in the end, didn’t even have to occur to get the change that A. Philip Randolph had in mind. He successfully organized enough people, made enough noise, and engaged in enough activity to be taken seriously by Eleanor Roosevelt and then Franklin Roosevelt, who was regarded by Randolph as being a very positive figure who would be sympathetic because his New Deal policies and all the rest of it. When he found that he couldn’t get much done on race issues and on jobs for blacks, that’s when he decided to mobilize. It was the threat of people in large numbers coming to Washington which led Franklin Roosevelt to prevent the march by agreeing to Executive Order 8802, so that’s a successful march against a president who is supposedly sympathetic, but who doesn’t want to make a change, and who ends up making it anyway, because the threat is salient and credible enough that he doesn’t want the march to take place.
The anti–Vietnam War movement wanted to stop the war and end the draft. There were antiwar protests, and as you note, “one group of protesters targeted Dow Chemical in order to get the company to stop manufacturing napalm. This later turned into a demand for universities to monitor and remove people from campuses who were Dow recruiters and who had connections to the military industrial complex in general.” What do you think of today’s college campuses?
What’s really interesting is that because of threats by the federal government when campuses stop letting ROTC programs and military recruiters even come on their campuses, threats to cut off money to the institutions, which I don’t think they would’ve done—the federal government rarely cuts off money to major institutions; they’re threats. But because of that, the universities opened their doors to military recruiters and ROTC everywhere, and their people are doing research with the defense industry. That would’ve been considered by the protesters in the 1960s as outrageous, given their feelings about war, and in particular, their feelings about what they considered an unjust war which was harming lots of people in Vietnam; napalm, all the bombings, and everything else that was taking place, and also because of the draft, which was forcing people to change their minds about their careers and their lives, and go into the military and a war which they thought was unjust anyway.
I think that most people who were college students at that time, if they were around, they would consider it sort of outrageous and interesting that on university campuses today, we have all kinds of protests that start, whether it’s the sexual harassment issue, or whether there’s been some sweatshop activity on many campuses. There are protests about admissions—there are all kinds of protests—but there are not protests about the military-industrial-complex and what it does on the campus, and how the campus is connected.
I recently attended an American Historical Association annual conference panel about protests on college campuses and how administrators and presidents should respond. What have you seen as a way that presidents or administrators should respond to some of the social movements going on?
This generation of presidents learned a lesson from the other presidents who were involved at the time of the other activities that took place. They learned to appear sympathetic and to go out and, in many cases, meet with the protesters. I’ve seen on some campuses where they go out and say to the protesters, “We’d like to march with you,” depending on what the issue is. They’ve also learned to deflect protests. For example, I’ve been on a campus where there was a movement to stop fossil fuel investment activities by the Board of Trustees, and the students had been protesting for quite awhile about that. They were coming to the president’s office, and all they really do is let them come into the hallway outside the president’s office and sit there, stay as long as they like, and then go away. There’d been some instances at the University of California system in Davis and others where the president didn’t know how to handle it, but in most places, the sophisticated university presidents have learned how to deflect most of this.
I’m sure you have some experiences like this when you were provost of the College of Behavioral and Social Science at University of Maryland, College Park, and as chancellor of the University of Colorado at Boulder.
Well, when I was at the University of Colorado, Boulder, there was a student protest, because students who were admitted on probation had to take a summer program, and if they passed it, they would be off probation and be a regular admit. Then, when they were ready, the university refused to let them come into the regular program after they had passed all the requirements! There was a protest about that (which I thought was wrong; it had happened before I had got there) and the students came over to demand that I meet with them, and I thought it was really amusing, because I left my office and walked over to meet them on the campus, and I said, “Gee, this is great! You know, when I was at the University of Michigan, I was at every protest that everybody had about anything and we took over the president’s office and did all kinds of things, so I’m glad to meet with you.” They were quite surprised.
Would you have been shocked if students had ever taken over your office, and you thought, “No, this certainly can’t happen to me.”
No, I would think that was fine. If they took over my office, I’d sit down and join them and talk with them. I certainly wouldn’t do anything to try to suppress anybody’s protest! There are protests now too about speakers on college campuses which, if you believe in free speech, it seems a little odd that when there are reactionary conservative speakers who want to speak, students join to say that they can’t. In the 1960s, it was a big issue in Berkeley and Michigan and Columbia. Our attitude was that people had a right to speak about whatever they wanted to speak about, and you had a right to protest when they came to speak about it.
Right, fairness for everyone involved.
Right, because there’s something called the First Amendment and we were a state institution, and even if you weren’t, one of the things you’d do at a university, you were there to learn and engage in listening to ideas, even the ones you don’t like.
About the Free South Africa Movement: In your book you write that “the antiapartheid movement succeeded in the Reagan administration when other antiapartheid organizations and protests were not able to stop US support of apartheid.” You also mention that “this requires one to consider the history of US policy and protest and antiapartheid activities. A conﬂuence of factors made it possible for FSAM to inﬂuence American policy that then helped destroy the apartheid regime. The people in South Africa took risks, struggled, died, went to prison, and lived ‘banned’ and isolated lives in their own cause to make their country ungovernable as long as their lives were suppressed.”
As a co-founder of the FSAM, and as a historian, what’s the reason for trying to provide readers with more of a historical background to the subject?
I want people to understand my impression of how you engage in successful movements, whether the president is in favor of what you’re doing or against what you’re doing. The Free South Africa Movement is an example of a successful movement, even though President Reagan was absolutely opposed to what we were doing, and not only what we really wanted to do.
The lesson we learned was you should keep it simple when you have a protest movement. Whatever your goal is, keep it simple, and we learned from the Civil Rights movement and the activities of the protests then and their argument for jobs and freedom. We learned from the March on Washington movement and its razorlike focus on jobs and the antiwar movement, the draft, and the war; that what you should have is something simple, so what we said is, “Stop apartheid. Let’s have sanctions to end apartheid, which is like segregation,” and everybody who has any memory knows what racial segregation was in the United States.
We just wanted sanctions. We wanted them because the protesters in South Africa who we consulted and worked with wanted us to get sanctions so the U.S. government would say that businesses couldn’t trade with South Africa, and they thought that if everybody did that— various European countries were doing it, the UN and so on—that in fact, apartheid would wither on the vine, and it would help all those people in South Africa. So we kept it simple.
You have to be smart and strategic when you have a movement, and to figure out your timing is important. The fact that we kicked off our movement on the day before Thanksgiving at a meeting which we managed to get with the ambassador—that was good timing because cable television needed something to fill up the air all the time. People were at home because it was Thanksgiving. When we were arrested, it became international news. When we started the movement, it became international news. It wouldn’t have helped the people in South Africa if we’d had protests that no one ever knew we did or heard about, or anything else. We also worked with key members of Congress who were willing to introduce legislation to get sanctions at the same time that we were the protest arm of the movement, the ingredient I talk about to put pressure on and get the legislation passed.
The other thing we learned is that you have to be persistent. We met everyday at my house, actually, for a whole year with the steering committee: Randall Robinson, Sylvia Hill, Roger Wilkins, and Bill Lucy. We met every single day to plan these activities. We had protesters, either at the embassy or at Shell Oil (which was dealing with South Africa), or protesting about the Krugerrand. Most Americans didn’t know what Krugerrands were, but we found out that the South African government relied on the finance exchange there heavily. We had a campaign to educate people about what they were, and we had protests of some kind not just at the embassy but somewhere every single day.
We had people throughout the country who supported us, who in fact would go and protest locally. The media could count on every day in Washington at 5 o’clock, there would be a protest. At first it was us; then it was other people as it got more media exposure, and everybody who was a celebrity or a politician or the heavyweight champion wanted to come. Michael Jackson came, all kinds of people came and asked to join the protesters, and they did. Rosa Parks came, and for the first time, she actually spoke in public. Usually, people would have her stand up and wave her hand but I told her to speak and she spoke.
It was a successful movement because it was persistent, it was organized. We had a small group of people who were committed to the cause and who trusted each other, who managed it. In the end, Reagan vetoed the sanctions bill, but we passed it over his veto after a year and we got it passed; then we had to get it passed again, and it worked. There’s a documentary that was on PBS called Have You Heard From Johannesburg: From Selma To Soweto on the whole movement.
You’ve talked about some successes and victories, but what about some of the greatest defeats for social movements during the George H.W. Bush Sr., Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush administrations?
What’s kind of interesting is that I knew or met most of these presidents—not Franklin D. Roosevelt, because I wasn’t born, but the rest of them. When George Herbert Walker Bush nominated Clarence Thomas to be Supreme Court Justice, we had a big organized protest movement to try to defeat his nomination and to support Anita Hill when she came out and said he had harassed her sexually, and in that movement, we failed. Absolutely. We failed because Clarence Thomas successfully advanced the whole notion of a “high-tech lynching” as he called it and that he somehow was being abused because he was black, and Joe Biden didn’t really want to do anything. There was a lot of pressure put on by members of Congress.
There was a story recently about women in Congress who went over to demand that Anita Hill be given a hearing. Some of us: myself, Kimberlé Crenshaw—the woman who developed the whole concept of intersectionality in sex and race discrimination litigation organized some people, and other people who teach legal courses went over to George J. Mitchell who was majority leader to demand that she be given the opportunity to testify.
There were several episodes, but Clarence Thomas, as we know, got confirmed anyway. The other thing that happened as a result of it—there’s always something good that comes out when you educate people, is that we had been trying to get a Civil Rights Act passed for a whole two years to try to remedy a bad Supreme Court decision which undermined Affirmative Action employment. We weren’t able to get it passed, and partly because it was too complicated. It wasn’t simple, and in part because there was not enough buy-in. It was a very contentious issue. When Clarence Thomas was confirmed, some of the people on the Hill who felt regretful and were embarrassed by the fact that they did it turned around in supporting the movement to get the Civil Rights Act of 1991 passed, so something good came out of something that didn’t work too well.
The most important movement in George Herbert Walker Bush’s administration was the American School Disability Act getting passed and what the disability rights movement did. They executed a textbook example, in my opinion, of how you would engage in a successful protest using guerrilla tactics and media effectively. They had been doing it since the Carter administration when they tried to take over buildings at that time in their wheelchairs and their crutches and the like, but they were successful in getting this bill passed when George Herbert Walker Bush was there — he signed it and wanted to take credit for it.
In the Clinton administration, we usually think of Bill Clinton well. In my book, I call him “the adaptable president.” Progressives were so relieved to have him in office after Reagan. Now, since Trump is president, many people don’t remember the bad things about Reagan: trying to nominate Robert Bork; turning back the clock on civil rights; promoting and wanting to perpetuate apartheid in South Africa — a lot of people don’t remember that, but people were so relieved when Clinton got elected after him and Bush that they thought, “Hey, this is really good, we’ve got a Democrat who’s in office!” and they cut him some slack, so to speak.
The biggest fight with Clinton, at first, was on LGBT issues, because he had “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” for the military, and there was a protest around that to try to keep him from issuing the policy, but he issued it anyway. With Bill Clinton, it was hard; there was globalism and the argument against NAFTA which was a failure; big labor, civil rights protests, marches; all kinds of protests to keep the North American Free Trade Agreement from being ratified, because people thought it would cost manufacturing jobs, which it did do, but Clinton went ahead and got Congress to enact it. People forget that now when Trump says he’s going to modify it, they forget that there were big protests against it when Clinton signed it and got it into effect.
The other couple of examples of big failures is, firstly, the election in 2000 and the failure to get Albert Gore or anybody to do anything when members of Congress went over to the Senate to protest that George W. Bush had, in their view, stolen the election in Florida. His approval ratings went way down and then came back up after 9/11, but we weren’t able to stop him from the war in Iraq and the whole “weapons of mass destruction” lie that took place. There were marches, all kinds of protests; people engaged in guerrilla tactics, taking over buildings and going up to the Congress and all the rest. Still, the war went on. In fact, it’s still going on, so there have been failures and there have been successes.
Do you find that your “nonviolent civil disobedience” experience you talk about in your book, as well as your experience with the African liberation struggle, directly informed your duties as the chair of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission from 1993 to 2004, or have you always been learning on the job?
I’ve always been learning on every job I’ve had, but I learned something very early when I was a child. I was 11 or 12, babysitting all day for this white family and their kid. I don’t know why they let me keep their kid, but I did, and I was playing music while nobody was there.
The woman came home one day and I told her that I loved this album I’d found and showed it to her. She said, “You shouldn’t be playing that music.” I lived in Nashville, Tennessee. It was Jim Crow segregated, and she said, “that music is not for you,” and got mad at me, and I didn’t understand what she was talking about, because I was 11 or 12.
I went home and I told my favorite aunt what had happened, and she said, “You stay out of those white folks’ things, you shouldn’t be going into their things. They’re going to think you’re a troublemaker.” I still didn’t know what I had done wrong, and all I know is, I never stayed out of white folks’ things or anybody’s things after that. I always looked for the things that I was not supposed to be looking for, or whatever I found. It’s just that as far as white folks were concerned, I didn’t always tell them that I’d been in their things.
It helped me to be a scholar, a historian, and to have an inquiring mind, although it did destroy my appreciation for Beethoven, because it was one of Beethoven’s symphonies that I’d liked very much. I didn’t know who he was, but from then on, when I hear it, I know about it. That whole experience accelerated my tendency to ask “Why?” about everything, and all of my life, I have asked “Why?” which is why I wrote all the different books and articles I’ve written because I always started out with the question of, “This happened, but why did it happen?” and that served me in good stead.
I think “Why?” is one of the great questions a historian can ask and a little bit of backbone to take over those record players and put on those records served you well.
On the U.S. Civil Rights Commission’s 60th anniversary panel which took place last year, you responded to a question from the moderator about which civil rights leaders you were keeping your eye on today. You replied with a summary of this new book, talking about how “litigation, investigation, legislation, are all part of the picture, but you have to have organized people, and the leaders that we have… I would name Alicia Garza from Black Lives Matter, Dante Barry from A Million Hoodies. All the people in the resistance who are in fact organizing, and the people organizing on DACA. We do have people who are activists and moving, and the Commission should, with its expertise, and the stuff it knows and all the reports it’s done over the years, have some very important things to say about that.”
Is “organization” itself one of the strongest indicators of success, rather than disjointed, ineffective gestures of protest that aren’t as collectively organized?
The best example I can give you is the Black Lives Matter movement that’s running right now that’s current. The three women who started that movement are Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi, and it would’ve appeared from the beginning that they wouldn’t be successful. It reminded me of the Free South Africa Movement which we called ‘F-SAM’; people assumed that we weren’t going to be successful. “It is ridiculous, you’re not getting anywhere, the president’s against you,” and I wouldn’t assume Black Lives Matter would have a hard time gaining traction, but they did all the right things.
They organized, they kept the movement [going], and Dante Barry did the same thing with A Million Hoodies in terms of the structure of the movement and who was involved. They, of course, have advantages because they can use social media, which is very effective in getting in touch with people and organizing. You don’t have to have leaflets and put posters up and call people on the phone, but it also means you can be surveilled by the government, which is very much possible. In any case, I think that movement right now, if we think about it, there are probably unarmed people being shot by police somewhere in this country still, but it doesn’t make the media in the way that it did before.
Police departments are more wary, by all accounts, from what they say publicly, and I know this is true in New Orleans and Washington, D.C., and in other places where I’ve travelled. Chicago, for example. They’re very weary of shooting unarmed people with the rapidity — it used to be almost every day — on TV, there would be some unarmed person who had gotten killed. Now you don’t see that as a ‘daily diet.’
Black Lives Matter have kept the movement going and have come up with a platform which has interesting things in it about health, education, welfare, and police, so I think that that is an example of a very successful one, but the movement around DACA which the organizations have engaged in has been very successful too. They started off with a very attractive goal because of the sympathy for — they keep calling them children, most of them aren’t children now, but they were children when they came here — and they have been able to mobilize successfully to get national attention, even from politicians who aren’t interested in moving on the subject. They have challenged them and they have gotten the movement going.
The movement against sexual harassment on college campuses is developing and growing, and has been successful to some extent, but I cite the Black Lives Matter and the DACA movement as the most successful ones.
In recent decades, it has become more visible that billionaires fit into the pecking order and I’m going to use the phrase “vulture capitalists” as “players” who are funding protest movements and counter-protest movements. In your estimation, where do the billionaire philanthropists and big social changers fit in the pecking order?
If you write a sequel to this book on the Obama administration and the Trump administration, do you think you’ll focus on some of the other money coming from private interests and explore how those interests have, historically, went about injecting themselves into the spheres of movements, perhaps under the guise of philanthropic support, trying to affect things in their favor or in someone else’s favor?
The most significant obstacle to the success of valid, aggressive social movements in getting policy changes is the “vulture capitalist,” as you called them, who fund organizations that are ersatz protest organizations that, in many cases, pretend that they are protest organizations, or stand for things that are not progressive if you analyze very clearly what their goals are.
They have a right to have goals — this is a democracy, everybody has a right to participate and have goals, but it’s the pretense and the use of manipulative language, rhetoric and advertising in such a way to make people think that they’re trying to do something that they’re not, and using the power of money to do that — to mislead people. Most people don’t spend enough time and don’t have time to read and note carefully and separate fact from fiction on a lot of things.
What you call “vulture capitalists” would make a very interesting book; probably somebody’s already written one, books and articles and so on, of how they go about their movements and what they fund. It would make a very good book. You could say, History Teaches Us To Use Ersatz Movements To Resist or History Teaches Us That Vulture Capitalists Can Make Social Change — that would make a very nice book, actually. I don’t plan to write another book, I’ve written too many, but if I were, that would make a good one.
One of the books that made a very great impression on me in my undergraduate and graduate school career is a book I read that came out in the 1930s written by Jesse T. Carpenter called The South As A Conscious Minority, 1789-1861: A Study In Political Thought. The book was about the period before the Civil War and how the South ended up eventually seceding. What impressed me about the analysis is thinking about today and about other periods in history: how people who support one kind of legal analysis and argument and principles — in this case, at the time the Constitution was written — become evolved, and at some point, don’t, in fact, support what they were supporting before, because the politics changes. They’re on a different side of the issue and they end up supporting a position that they didn’t even support before, and in their case, it was states’ rights.
They sort of accepted federalism at the beginning of the nation and the Constitution but as long as they had power—controlling the presidency, because the president came from the South, controlling the Congress. Henry Wilson has a book called History Of The Rise And Fall Of The Slave Power In America that came out in the 19th century about that. As long as they controlled the Congress and as long as they controlled the presidency, they were fine with whatever happened, because they thought their institutions would be protected. But as soon as they lost power and no longer controlled, they began making all these arguments about the power of the states as opposed to the power of the federal government, and they started suing the national government and doing all kinds of things.
They had nefarious purposes because they really wanted to support slavery, which is outrageous. What I think about today and earlier periods since and in between, is the blue states in the United States are now in a position where they are suing the federal government. There are so many lawsuits that attorney generals have brought against the policies of the Trump administration, because although they have the population, they don’t have the electoral college, and so many of them would not have thought of suing the federal government when Barack Obama was president, or when a president who made sense was president—I might put it that way.
Now as a last sort of recourse, they are suing the government, in their case for good reasons, in my opinion. They have some deeply held principles and they no longer have the power to see them implemented by the federal government or protected by the federal government, so therefore they sue the federal government or they secede or do whatever, and in this case, now that the blue states have the people but they don’t have the power over Trump with all these regulations, de-regulation, and all the things that he’s doing — what they do is what people always do. They say, “Okay, let’s go to court!” and they sue. I don’t think it’ll end up in secession, although I understand that in California, some groups of people are talking about seceding. It’s just very interesting in terms of human behavior.
In your book, you tell a positive story about the Million Man March which took place in Washington, D.C. during the Clinton administration. You write: “The marchers came to town, and left the same day. The coming together was inspiring. One most important result of the march was that some who had not been at a march on Washington before were astonished that so many people came together in one place and without hostility, violence, or misbehavior. Also, an important take-away was the commitment of many attendees and observers to involve themselves in local voluntary education and mentoring programs to help youth and to overcome social problems.”
Do you often find that community involvement, such as local mentoring programs, goes hand-in-hand with inspiring, stirring, and change-inducing marches and protests?
That section was on the Million Man March that was in Washington during the Clinton administration. They came, left the same day, they didn’t go to Congress and ask for anything, they didn’t do anything. They just had the march and spoke forever; and they did whatever they did. I was a critic of the march, but what I thought was interesting about it was that people did go to the march and inspire. Some people who went there came back to their communities and actually engaged in activities to help local people and got involved in local problems, and I think that’s important. Some of the people who were in the March on Washington movement during FDR’s administration ended up using the lessons that they learned there in the march that took place during the marches during the Civil Rights movement, and the March on Washington that took place in 1963. There are some lasting effects of being engaged in local activities to help local people.
There are reverberations far beyond what you see going on with a march or a successful national movement. There are community activities — community is important, because that’s where the people are, that’s where the base is, and that’s where the problems at the grassroots level can be solved, many times.
Do you think that there should be an area of scholarship that relates to protest movements and how people learn from their mistakes?
Sociologists work on social movements all the time. Frances Fox Piven’s Poor People's Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail,on the Poor People’s Campaign is a classic book on the protests and what protesters do. Sociologists have a whole body of literature, and social historians have written about the history of various movements and activities.
It would do well to take a broader view and compare different movements, both ones that are progressive and the ones that are the vulture capitalists, and compare how they do things, and also, over time, when the technology changes, which I address in the beginning of this book and at the end, what impact that has on the success, failure or outcome.
Sometimes the technology as we use it now can make you think that all you need to do is send something over the internet and then you’re finished, which the history of movements and even what’s happening now shows that that’s not the way you make change by itself.
You did make note of this in your book, positing that “resisters must understand that media cannot cover them unless they do something, which is why showing up is still required.” The old fashioned act of showing up and taking the necessary footsteps to a location, putting up a sign, and having a voice.
Or like when people engaged in the forums around the healthcare bill when Congress was trying to get rid of Obamacare during this Trump administration. People showed up at forums all across the country, protesting inside and outside, demanding to get in, so many that some Republican Congressman decided not to meet with the constituents anymore, because it was so heated. Also, during the rounds of budget negotiations, and then DACA.
There are people that go up to local offices of Congressmen and women on the hill and protest, demand to see them. You can use social media; the technology’s great, it’s much better than when we used to have mimeograph machines and get ink all over your fingers when you were trying to make up a poster or a message, but you have to show up.
Showing up, even though you may have a full-time job. What are your recommendations for people trying to have that work-life balance, or rather a protest-work-life balance? How can they keep everything in their lives in order so that they can mind their personal lives but also devote the time they want to further causes they are passionate about?
Well, not everybody can drop everything and go off and spend days protesting. I understand that. As I say, there are many means of protests. Some can send emails or phone calls to their Congress people, their local political official, or city council, or whoever it is that is involved in something. You can write op-eds and send them off to the media and have them publish them. You can lead in your church or local community, whatever organization you’re in, your bowling club, whatever it is, to spread the word and fit it in.
Then, there are people who are able to spend the time to go and put their bodies on the line and protest in that way, and then they should do it, but I have to say that I have never been happier than when I engaged with a group of people in protest activities in public.
No matter how long it takes or whether we go to jail or don’t go to jail or whatever, I just think the camaraderie and the sense of purpose and knowing that you’re doing something for the public good is really absolutely refreshing and you can get high on it, so to speak.
During protest movements, if you feel resistance from the other side, does that create a moment of self reflection where a protester confronts whether they’re really meant for that kind of resistance movement?
There’s always going to be friction from the other side. Also, protest and resistance doesn’t have an end. It’s endless, because once you win a fight, the people who you fight against aren’t just going to give up and go away if it’s a big and important issue. The issue is going to come back in some way, so you have to be prepared to stand up for the issue. Also, when you put pressure on politicians to make them change something, you have to continue to put pressure on them, you can’t just go away and say, “Okay, now I’ve achieved that so now I don’t have to worry about it, they’ll do the right thing,” because there are other people on the other side who are putting pressure on them.
So it has to become a permanent objective and not just a temporary one.
Yes, keep it in mind. Keep it in mind.
This book provides a broad view of all the social movements of the last half century. What did writing it feel like when it was finished, did it make you look at things differently over a long period of time?
The book is based on the kind of research historians normally do, but also my own experiences, because I happened to have been involved in most of the movements that are in the book, and have my own perspective. The fact that it is tested by the research means that it’s more valid than it probably would be otherwise if I were just giving you my personal opinion of my experience. It’s also the case that it made me see some things differently.
An example is Vietnam; I had trouble writing that chapter because I had always thought that we failed in the antiwar movement. War continued after 1968 when Lyndon Johnson decided not to run for president again, and I’d spent my whole life thinking that we failed, and how awful it was that all those people still continued to die and continued to get drafted, because Richard Nixon continued the war; that we weren’t able to stop it, and that our protests really didn’t have an effect.
Then I found out when I started researching that I had ignored what’s already in the literature for a few years, which was that Nixon sold out and that he had committed “treason” because our protests, the military, the fighting, had all made North Vietnam come to the peace table, and peace could’ve been made in ‘68, but Nixon had emissaries, including H. R. Haldeman, who worked for him, to tell the North Vietnamese if they just hold out until he got to be president, not say anything, that he’d give them a better deal, which was just absolutely awful, and I hadn’t paid attention to that.
Once I knew that, I felt better about what we had done, and felt better that we hadn’t totally failed, and so I wrote the chapter. After I’d finished it, I was more persuaded than ever that if you organize a movement, if you’re persistent, if you’re courageous, if you try to be smart about it with the band of people you join with and you trust each other, work on it, and respect people who’ve been working on the issues for years, even though they haven’t been able to make the kind of change that you envisioned — that you can resist successfully, and that the resistance makes sense.
What’s next for you?
I have no idea. I don’t plan to write another book, I don’t have anything in mind, but you have given me an idea about vulture capitalists — I had no plan until you started talking to me and so now I’m going to have to take another look at the history of vulture capitalists. What I want to do is look at the whole history of how capitalism on the one side, based on your questioning, was successful in organizing — especially when they did ersatz movements, like “pretended-to-movement,” and contrast that to what progressives were doing at the same time, and do it in a very long form historical way, is what I had in mind.
I’m humbled and very much looking forward to the sequel, then! Thank you for the interview, Dr. Berry.
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