One person doing one thing every day to further the cause of social justice. This idea may not be new but it could be revolutionary. “The main thing is to do the best you can,” said Dr. Mary Francis Berry, chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
Sponsored by the Office of the President and the College Diversity Roundtable, Berry delivered the second annual Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative Address at UR on Monday. Her remarks were entitled “Empowering the Dream: Reaffirming the American Ideals of Freedom, Justice, and Opportunity for All.”
The talk was rescheduled from its original date in February because of inclement weather. Minority students and members of the community made up most of the audience. There were also a number of representatives from the administration, faculty and staff.
Berry opened her address by saying that King’s agenda of justice and equality has been furthered by the progress that the United States has made domestically in ensuring more opportunity for all. “Most people embrace the value of diversity,” she said.
Though she sees the Civil Rights Movement as a success “compared to what existed before,” Berry also sees the need to stay committed to King’s ideals and continue to make improvements. “To be committed to the idea of struggle and sacrifice is important,” she said. “We can’t give up our values for security.”
Berry believes that the events of Sept. 11 have changed the public’s perception of race-related issues. She is concerned about the safety of civil liberties in the face of the government’s anti-terrorism agenda. “Americans don’t talk about it much because we believe it won’t happen to us,” she said.
The possibility that detainees at Guantanamo Bay could be detained even after they are acquitted is one instance that Berry believes could be a threat to civil liberties. “Anyone who shares in King’s philosophy would be distressed,” she said.
At a press conference earlier in the day, Berry said that it is important for Americans to be concerned about applying the rules of the Geneva Convention to the detainees so U.S. troops won’t be detained unfairly. “It is important to abide by the rules so the rules can be fairly applied to everyone, including you,” she said.
She is also concerned about the situation in the Middle East. According to Berry, the problem came when Israelis and Palestinians stopped talking to each other. “As long as they were talking, the violence was minimal,” she said.
Berry sees U.S. involvement as essential to getting both sides talking again. “Talking is a better way than watching people kill each other,” she said. “We need to pray for peace and hope there will be some sure-footedness gained.”
Within the U.S., the Commission on Civil Rights has been working on election reform after finding problems in Florida during the 2000 presidential election. She cited several examples of voters being disenfranchised and said that the Senate will pass election reform because of the Commission’s work on the case. “It is absolutely crucial,” she said. “Election reform is important in order to make political democracy not an illusion, but a reality.”
Educational accountability and accessible healthcare for everyone are issues that the Commission is also working on.
Berry said that the most important part of improving problems of inequality lies with individual accountability. “The real question for us is whether we can embrace everyone,” she said.
Berry said that college campuses are a place where students can become aware of the great diversity of the American population and learn that getting along with people who are different is essential. “We need not be so rigid,” she said. “We need to be tolerant. We need to be understanding. We need to be open-minded.”
According to Berry, the solution lies in making students engage across color lines during their first year of orientation. Because students come to college bringing what they’ve already learned about tolerance, Berry says that “the most important thing is to make it clear that intolerance will not be tolerated.”
Berry emphasized that the commitment to social justice can begin with just one individual. “Every day for the rest of your life, do one thing for the cause of social justice,” Berry told the audience. She said it could be something as simple as saying a prayer or tutoring a child.
Berry turned her talk into an interactive experience by holding a question and answer period after her remarks. The audience enjoyed this aspect of her presentation because it made them feel like active participants.
Freshman and member of the planning committee J. R. Santana Carter was impressed with the way Berry interacted with students. “She went out of her way to talk to students,” Carter said. “I wish that more students had attended to hear what she had to say.”
The audience found that Berry’s idea of taking individual responsibility was important. “Her suggestion that everyone consider daily how to contribute to the struggle for equality was important,” said planning committee member, Vice President and General Secretary Paul Burgett. “Progress on these matters is made usually incrementally, and usually as a result of individual activity at the micro level. That, I thought, was an empowering idea.”
Students agreed. “Usually when I hear talks, I feel great because of the improvements, but it also shows me how much needs to be done,” said sophomore Rebecca Hernandez.
Carter said that students who are interested in helping to plan the MLK Commemorative Address for next year can contact the Office of Minority Student affairs.
“We can all do something,” said senior and planning committee member Teri Peart. “There is a part that each student can play in doing one thing every day.”