MLK speaker: King evolved as a civil rights leader

Mary Frances Berry speaks with audience members during MLK event.
Image credit - Emily Zoladz

For years, when Mary Frances Berry or Coretta Scott King were confronted with a quandary and unsure how to proceed, the two friends would ask a simple question. The pair looked to Scott King’s late husband, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., for inspiration. 

“We’d always ask each other, ‘What would Martin do?’” Berry said. “We would not always do what Martin did, but we would always ask the Martin question. She always liked holding up his banner very high.” 

The Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies, in partnership with the Division of Inclusion and Equity, welcomed Berry on January 19 to the Pew Grand Rapids Campus as part of Grand Valley’s Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration Week.

Berry, the Geraldine R. Segal professor of American Social Thought and history at the University of Pennsylvania and former chair of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, shared her experiences from decades at the forefront of the civil rights movement.

Students listen to Mary Frances Berry speak during MLK event.
Image credit - Emily Zoladz
Dr. Mary Frances Berry chats with Cook Leadership Academy student.
Image credit - Emily Zoladz

Berry said she never met King, but became good friends with Scott King in the years following his assassination. 

“I find the commemoration of Martin Luther King bittersweet,” Berry said. “Because on one hand, I like remembering him and talking about his legacy. On the other hand, I lament his passing and miss his voice.” 

Berry said King evolved as a civil rights leader after two key moments in U.S. history: the Watts riots in Los Angeles and the Vietnam War. 

Berry said early in King’s emergence as a civil rights leader, he believed if Blacks had the right to vote, they wouldn’t need to protest injustices. King thought the politicians would be fair to the Black community because they knew they would need their votes.  

But, the turmoil in Los Angeles showed King otherwise, Berry said. Blacks already had the right to vote in California, and still faced systemic injustices.  

Then as the Vietnam War escalated, King was deeply moved by veterans returning home with PTSD, and he questioned the enormous amount of money funneled to support the war effort. 

“He had this visceral feeling of being against the war,” Berry said. “He evolved in important ways that are lessons for us about what to do about the enduring social problems that still beset us.”

The two events were pivotal in helping King evolve toward his non-violent civil disobedience policy to affect change, Berry said. 

“You cannot make social change on the big issues that keep occurring in our country, if you don’t mobilize,” said Berry. “You’ve got to be in the struggle. This is something he believed in.”


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