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Activists offer perspectives on Civil Rights Movement

(From left) Athena Mutua moderates discussion with Mary Frances Berry and Diane Nash. Photo: Nancy J. Parisi


Published February 27, 2014

“We changed ourselves in the South into people who could not be segregated.”
Diane Nash

Mary Frances Berry and Diane Nash were on the front lines of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, and the veteran activists brought their stories to a UB audience last night.

Berry, the Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought at the University of Pennsylvania, and Nash, a native of Chicago who became one of the pioneers of the Civil Rights Movement, were the speakers at UB’s 38th Annual Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration event, held in the Center for the Arts. The focus of the program, which was moderated by Athena Mutua, professor and Floyd H. and Hilda L. Hurst Faculty Scholar in the UB Law School, was the 50th anniversary of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Berry recalled the day in 1954 when the Supreme Court handed down the ruling in Brown v. Board of Education making segregation in public schools illegal. She was walking down a street in her hometown of Nashville with her high school teacher when they saw the headline in the local newspaper.

“I said, ‘Does that mean that by next year we’ll all be going to school together?’ Berry asked her teacher. And her teacher replied: “’Not so fast, Mary Frances. Not so fast.’”

“She was right,” Berry remembers “It didn’t happen the next year. And not much happened except resistance. And I often think that if the whole country has said to the South ‘we’re going to end segregation and discrimination since Brown was decided,’ we would not have had to go through the travails of the next few years.”

Berry said some people were angry that change didn’t happen right away. “But we were ready to do what needed to be done when the Civil Rights Movement came along,” she said.

She stressed that while many people from the North — both black and white — came to the South to work in the Civil Rights Movement, “most of the people who went to jail were from the South: They were home-grown Southerners. And a lot of them were children and a lot of them were women.”

“Most of the civil rights leaders were home-grown Southerners … these were inside agitators, not outside agitators,” she said.

Berry noted that this year marks the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty, as well as the Civil Rights Act. When Martin Luther King started complaining about the money that was being spent on the Vietnam War and not on poverty, he became “persona non grata at the White House,” she said.

King’s opposition to the war prompted Berry to go to Vietnam for a summer “to find out what was going on” — she managed to get herself credentialed as a reporter, since she couldn’t travel to the country as a private citizen — and talked to the “grunts” who were fighting.

“I made a commitment — which I’ve kept — that when the laws were passed, I’d do everything I could do to see to it that they were enforced. So I spent most of my life being an activist,” said Berry, who twice served as chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights —she sued Ronald Reagan when he tried to remove her — and is a founder of the Free South Africa Movement.

In concluding her opening remarks, Berry noted that the Civil Rights Movement “was a natural outgrowth of the failure of the country to come to grips with Brown and to actually do anything about implementing its provisions in a broad-brush way.”

Nash began her remarks by telling the audience she first became involved in the Civil Rights Movement in 1959 while a student at Fisk University in Nashville. Although she had experienced discrimination while growing up on the South Side of Chicago, she had never encountered “overt segregation” — such as the signs labeling facilities as either “white only” or “colored only” — until she moved to Nashville as a student.

“I knew segregation existed in the South, but when I encountered the signs, it affected me emotionally. I became outraged.”

She recounted seeing black men and women who worked in downtown Nashville sitting along the curbs of downtown streets eating their lunches because they were not allowed to sit down and eat in restaurants — not even at the dime-store lunch counters.

“I found that so humiliating and so degrading,” she said, “When I conformed with a segregation policy, it felt like I was agreeing that I was too inferior to use front doors or facilities that the general public used.”

Nash said she began looking for an organization that was trying to do something about segregation; many of her fellow students at Fisk told her she would not be successful and advised her “to stay out of trouble.” She met the Rev. James Lawson, who conducted training workshops on the philosophy and strategies for nonviolence for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

“Those workshops were life-changing,” said Nash, who went on to become chair of the student sit-in movement in Nashville in 1961 — Nashville was the first southern city to desegregate its lunch counters — as well as one of the founding students of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee. In 1961, she coordinated the Freedom Ride from Birmingham, Ala., to Jackson, Miss.

Nash shared one of the Lawson workshop principles with the UB audience: Oppression always requires the cooperation of the oppressed.

Oppression is something that the oppressor and the oppressed do together, she explained. But once the oppressed withdraw their participation from the oppressive system, that system will fall.

She cited the Montgomery bus boycott as an example. For decades, blacks had thought that whites were segregating them on buses. “But think about it,” she suggested. “In order for there to have been segregated buses, blacks had to get on the bus, pay their fares and walk to the back of the bus.” The day the blacks in Montgomery decided there would no longer be segregated buses in their city — it took no change on the part of whites — “there were no longer segregated buses in Montgomery.”

“So who was segregating buses?” Nash asked. “Clearly, blacks were segregating buses,” and whites were, too, she said, because to defy segregation, blacks could be jailed, beaten or even killed.

“The only person you can change is yourself,” Nash said. “And when you change yourself, the world has to fit up against the new you. We changed ourselves in the South into people who could not be segregated.

“This presented Southern white racists with a new set of options: They had to actually shoot us or they had to do away with segregation because it wasn’t possible to segregate us any longer.”

Nash told audience members she had worked with Martin Luther King, adding that she had met him at a critical point in her life. She said she was “just coming of age” and discovering that some of the civil rights leaders “had their own agendas and the best interests of people were not always at the top of those agendas.”

“However, I did not have that problem with Martin Luther King. He and I had some vigorous disagreements about strategy, we would have great conversations, but I never had to worry about his integrity. His heart was in doing what was in the best interest of people.”