Civil Rights Chief Shows Equality in Bedeviling Critics


Most politicians sit up straighter when the White House calls--an unseen but perceptible salute to power.

Mary Frances Berry is not most politicians.

Outspoken, passionate, tenacious, she is at the moment fighting President Bush’s decision to select a new member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, which she chairs. In fact, she told White House Counsel Alberto R. Gonzales that if he wanted to seat a new commissioner, he had better send the U.S. marshals.

The case is now in court, but the controversy has revived interest in the 63-year-old Berry, who has served on the commission for nearly half its 44-year history and has angered every administration, Republican and Democrat, since she came on board.


President Carter appointed her in 1980, and she promptly criticized him for repatriating Haitian refugees.

President Reagan tried to fire her, but she took the dismissal to court--and won.

President Clinton took a lashing from her when he withdrew his nomination of Lani Guinier to be assistant attorney general for civil rights.

And Bush saw her accuse his brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, of a pattern of “injustice, ineptitude and inefficiency” that disenfranchised minority voters in the 2000 election.

Critics say her take-no-prisoners style (the online publication has called her “a vitriolic brawler”) dilutes her effectiveness and that of the commission, which has a $9-million annual budget and 80 employees but no enforcement powers.

The National Journal’s Stuart Taylor says she runs the commission “as a propaganda mill for the victimology wing of the Democratic Party.” Berry’s fellow commissioner Abigail Thernstrom thinks that the commission’s reputation is “in the basement.”

But Berry, a historian and writer who was born in segregationist Nashville and survived an early childhood that she says was worthy of Charles Dickens, delights in the specter of being a proud black woman talking truth to power.


“It never occurs to me to worry about whether a president disagrees,” she said in an interview. “I wish I could be more diplomatic, more measured. I’m not trying to figure out every day how to be a lightning rod. It’s just that I have the courage of my convictions.”

If she is rough on opponents, some might argue she has earned the privilege. Placed in an orphanage by her mother after her father deserted the family, she says her earliest memory is hearing her brother wail for more food. She was 4 years old when her mother reclaimed the children, raising them alone while working as a beautician. Berry deduced that to get what you wanted in life, you had to fight.

She credits teachers at every level for encouraging her to achieve, especially one high school history teacher, Minerva Hawkins, who was a mother figure and friend until she died last year. “She used to say that I was a diamond in the rough, and she was still trying to rub off my rough edges,” Berry said.

Perhaps as a result, there are bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Howard University and a doctorate in history and a law degree from the University of Michigan. Currently the Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought at the University of Pennsylvania, Berry is a former chancellor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where she was also a professor of history and law.

In her academic writings, as in her political appointments (she worked as an education official before being named to the commission), Berry is above all a contrarian. It seems it’s not just presidents she enjoys skewering.

She was the lead author in a 1992 book, “Long Memory: The Black Experience in America,” which argued that for blacks in the 1960s, “the threat of genocide was real. It was roughly comparable to the threat faced by the Jews in the 1930s.”


She is proudest of a book called “Why the ERA Failed,” which criticized the feminist movement for a flawed political strategy. “It’s all about how the women’s movement was outfoxed by [conservative] Phyllis Schlafly,” she said.

She wriggles out of labels, saying she is no Democrat, not necessarily a liberal--a thorn by any other name.

And she enraged many listeners of Berkeley’s KPFA-FM when, as Pacifica Foundation chairwoman, she initiated management changes that she said were aimed at wresting control of the station from “white male hippies over 50.” One broadcaster was arrested on the air, accused of violating her ban on discussing the controversy on the air.

The General Accounting Office, in a 1997 audit, criticized the commission as “an agency in disarray, with limited awareness how its resources are used.” Berry’s defenders said the GAO was doing the bidding of Republican opponents of affirmative action.

Her defense is Arthur S. Flemming. One of the grand old men of Republican politics, who served presidents from Herbert Hoover to Richard Nixon, Flemming was there at the creation, when President Eisenhower decided to create the commission as a means of defusing the civil rights movement that was simmering across the South.

When Carter named Berry to the commission in 1980, Flemming took her under his wing. He would take her to breakfast at the hushed Hay-Adams Hotel and school her on the ways, big and small, of Washington power. Mostly, he told her about the commission’s history, about Eisenhower’s table-pounding insistence that it get the facts (which is why the panel has subpoena power) and that it maintain its independence.


“No White House, no Justice Department, tells us what to do,” Berry said. “When the day comes and I’m no longer on the commission, I’ll know I did what Arthur Flemming taught me: to protect the integrity of the commission.”