“Who’s going to be the Joshua Generation that will lead us into the Promised Land?”
With this Biblical analogy, University of Pennsylvania professor Mary Frances Berry issued a concluding challenge to the audience for her March 16 virtual keynote address in MTSU’s celebration of National Women’s History Month.
The Nashville, Tennessee-born Berry, who served on the U.S. Civil Rights Commission through four presidential administrations, listed four issues she hoped her audience will address — an increase in the minimum wage, an extension of the child care tax credit in the pandemic stimulus package, passage of the John Lewis Voting Rights Act and police reform.
She also highlighted several women activists who might provide the women leaders of the future with inspiration. One was Murfreesboro native Callie House, a woman born into slavery who became the leader of the Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty and Pension Association.
The group, which relocated to Nashville to take advantage of church networking, required each member to pay dues of 25 cents a year to advocate for economic assistance to African Americans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
“They sent petitions to the Congress of the United States asking that reparations, pensions, be given because there was no Social Security then,” Berry said.
The association is considered the forerunner of the current move toward reparations for the descendants of the enslaved, as exemplified by U.S. House Resolution 40, which would create a commission to sort out the details of how reparations would be paid.
“If the federal government ever does anything about this, she should be celebrated as the godmother of the movement,” Berry said.
Berry also singled out Marian Wright Edelman, the recently retired founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, whose persistent lobbying on behalf of children resulted in legislation to advance foster care and adoption and to reduce childhood poverty.
“She is acting in a way that women who show leadership and use both politics and bringing pressure to bear can make social change,” Berry said.
Berry was a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights from 1980 to 2004 and served as chair from 1993 to 2004. Since 1987, Berry has served as the Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought and a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
She teaches the history of American law and the history of law and social policy. She also serves as an adviser to students on African American history and legal history.
MTSU’s celebration of National Women’s History Month is coordinated by the June Anderson Center for Women and Nontraditional Students. For more information, go to www.mtsu.edu/jac/nwhm.php.
— Gina K. Logue (firstname.lastname@example.org)