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A Book for Our Times: Mary Frances Berry’s “History Teaches Us to Resist”

By Gayatri Patnaik

Mary Frances Berry under arrest for civil disobedience at the South African Embassy, Shell protests
Mary Frances Berry under arrest for civil disobedience at the South African Embassy, Shell protests

I had the very good fortune to meet Dr. Mary Frances Berry (MFB) when I was twenty-one years old and working at the University of Pennsylvania. Having recently graduated from college with one major and an excessive number of minors (three!), I was undecided about what to pursue in graduate school. I ended up in Philly, working in Penn’s history department, where, in addition to supporting the professors administratively, I was allowed to sit in on classes and lectures.

Penn had an incredible history department and, at the time, included Michael Katz, Drew Faust, Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, and many other brilliant scholars. From where I sat, I often overheard their conversations and remember noting with interest when several senior historians said they intended to attend some of MFB’s courses themselves. I never heard that said of any other professor.

History Teaches Us to ResistI was continually surprised that, though busy, MFB always had time for me and my questions, and she got to know me well enough that she agreed to write a recommendation for graduate school. (Penn accepted me into its PhD anthropology program, but I chose, not surprisingly for anyone who knows me!, the left-leaning New School for Social Research in NYC.)

One of the lovely qualities that MFB has is a profound commitment to her students, and we have remained in touch through the years. She has modeled to me, and to countless generations of students, what showing up looks like.

It has been a joy to have published Mary Frances Berry at Beacon Press two previous times, and her new book, History Teaches Us to Resist: How Progressive Movements Have Succeeded in Challenging Times, is out today. This book emerges from an idea I came up with just a few hours after the 2016 election when, like many of us, I couldn’t sleep. I was plagued by the questions: How have progressive movements historically fared in the US during conservative times, and is there hope? By the time I got up the next morning, I knew the person to ask was Dr. Mary Frances Berry. Not only had she worked in four or five presidential administrations, but her decades of activism in multiple movements and her knowledge/skills as both a historian and legal scholar made her uniquely qualified.

MFB’s response to my questions may be found in History Teaches Us to Resist.

I learned a great deal from editing it and found it eye-opening and, also, heartening. I hope many people will read and share it. History Teaches Us to Resist is indeed a book for our times.


About the Author 

Gayatri PatnaikPreviously an editor at both Palgrave Macmillan and Routledge, editorial director Gayatri Patnaik has been at Beacon Press nearly fifteen years and has published authors including Cornel West, Kate Bornstein, Marcus Rediker and Mary Frances Berry. She acquires in US History, with a focus on African American History and race/ethnicity/immigration, and began Beacon’s “ReVisioning American History” series. Gayatri occasionally signs memoir, began Beacon’s LGBTQ series, “Queer Action/Queer Ideas,” (edited with Michael Bronski) and developed books in “The King Legacy,” with Joanna Green, in a series about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Follow her on Twitter at @gpatnaik1.