The presentation by the groundbreaking educator, scholar and author, titled "Barack Obama, Martin Luther King Jr. and Us: Achieving Peace and Justice in Our Time," offered words of encouragement but also words of warning. Berry was adamant in her belief that the Civil Rights movement is just as relevant and important in today's society as it was in the 1960s before King's untimely assassination.
"Martin is frozen in time; he'd be 80 this year," said Berry, who knew King and his wife, Coretta, personally. "Out of the fabric of his whole life, we are called upon to figure out how to create what he called the ‘Unified Community of Justice.'
"It is true that what he and other folks in the Civil Rights movement wanted was to have our people align reality with the goals of the great documents and promises of our national life – by which I mean the Declaration of Independence and the preamble to the Constitution. (Barack) Obama's election symbolizes, no matter how we look at it, that the Civil Rights movement was a success. We have come a long way as a country in moving toward fairness, justice and equal opportunity."
The recipient of 32 honorary degrees and numerous social action and academic awards, Berry served on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights from 1980-2004. Between 1977 and 1980, Berry was the assistant secretary for education in the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare. She has also served as provost of the University of Maryland and chancellor of the University of Colorado at Boulder.
"One of the things we have to consider is ‘where do we go from here'," said Berry, currently the Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought and Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania and one of the founders of the Free South Africa Movement. "In the spirit of Martin Luther King, I think we have a lot of work to do in building upon the agenda he had.
"Some people think that just having Barack Obama elected, things are going to miraculously change, and everything is going to be fine. I discourage that thinking, and he discourages that thinking."
Berry, who has authored nine books, said King's messages of 40 years ago still resonate. His theme of the "Fierce Urgency of Now" has even been adopted by Obama.
"Martin said we need to eradicate racism, poverty and militarism, and we need to shift from a theme-oriented society to a people-oriented society," said Berry, who has a bachelor's degree from Howard University, a Ph.D. in history from the University of Michigan and a J.D. from the University of Michigan Law School. "All of these are things that Obama said he wanted to do during the campaign. Martin Luther King, in fact, laid these out as an agenda that has not yet been accomplished.
"There are so many headwinds – as many or more than in Martin's time – to try to achieve this. There's work to be done."
Berry referred to war, the economic crisis, the energy crisis and the health care crisis as some of the various "headwinds" impeding progress in American society.
Established in 1990, the Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative Convocation features an academic procession with faculty in full regalia. This year's event included an uplifting musical performance by Wittenberg's gospel choir IMANI, conducted by Kelleia Johnson, class of 2009 from Canton, Ohio, and a thoughtful introduction of Berry by Concerned Black Students President Brittani Sterling, class of 2009 from Deridder, La.
The convocation was preceded by a freedom march from the Springfield Art Museum to Wittenberg's Benham-Pence Student Center. Immediately following the convocation, there was a Unity Luncheon and a question-and-answer session with Berry.
The Witt Series brings distinguished lecturers and performing artists of national and international prominence to the campus and local community. For more information about the Series, visit the university's Web site. To make special arrangements reserve a Series poster or become a friend of the Witt Series, contact Jeannine Fox at (937) 327-7470 or via e-mail.
Written By: Ryan Maurer
Photo By: Erin Pence '05
Video By: Robert Ritzi '10
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