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Mary Frances Berry Tells Trevor Noah that History Teaches Us to Resist

Mary Frances Berry on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah
Mary Frances Berry on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah. Photo credit: Sean Gallagher

It’s not often that our authors appear on The Daily Show, but when they do, we flip out and rejoice! Mary Frances Berry, former Chairwoman of the US Commission on Civil Rights and lifelong activist, was invited to speak on the show on January 20, in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. 

You’d think that this meeting of the minds would have happened sooner. How fitting that host Trevor Noah, whose parents’ interracial relationship was illegal at the time of his birth under apartheid law in South Africa, would speak with Dr. Berry, one of the antiapartheid protestors who started the Free South Africa movement! But timing is of the essence. As we find ourselves in an era of fear and despair, we have a lot to learn from Dr. Berry.  

With Noah, she spoke about misconceptions people still have about Dr. King (after all this time), the civil rights movement, and her book History Teaches Us to Resist: How Progressive Movements Have Succeeded in Challenging Times. Filled with firsthand accounts of putting herself on the line, this is the book to read if you want to see how to enact progressive change. As executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union Anthony D. Romero said, there is “no one more qualified than Dr. Mary Frances Berry to write this crucially needed and powerful book.”

Here are some highlights from the interview.


Trevor Noah: What do you think is the biggest misconception people have about Dr. King?

Mary Frances Berry: The biggest misconception is that Martin Luther King was a dreamer who had a dream. Martin Luther King believed in the right to vote . . . . But over the years as he evolved, he saw the vote is important and he continued to fight for it . . . . But voting by itself isn’t going to give us justice. And he concluded that nonviolent protest is an essential ingredient of politics.


TN: If you could organize a protest today, what would you say would be the most pressing issue people need to protest for?

MFB: Climate change. Because climate change affects all of us without regard to race or class. We may not understand that it does, but it does. So I would do it in a way to try to explain to people not just the morality of it but how their lives are endangered and the lives of their children and so on. And find messaging that would help to do that. And the messaging takes time.


Mary Frances Berry on key points from History Teaches Us to Resist

Every generation has to make its own dent in the wall of injustice. Young people have to pick up the torch and move forward with it. Martin Luther King stood for all of that.

What you have to do when you protest is keep changing what you do. Don’t do the same thing over and over and over again. People get tired. If you did the same thing on your show every night, people wouldn’t watch you. Change it up!

You have to be present in the moment. You have to do something yourself. You have to put your body on the line. You have to be willing to go to jail. You have to be willing to say, “Here I stand, and you will go no further, because I have moral authority in what I’m doing.” If there’s a change you want to have made, sure vote, but don’t just vote and then go home. That won’t end inequality and that won’t change us and get us justice in this country.


Watch their full conversation here.