Mary Frances Berry, a leading historian, civil rights advocate, legal scholar, and human rights advocate, was born in Nashville. After enduring an impoverished childhood, Berry received a Ph.D. and J.D. from the University of Michigan. During the 1960s and 1970s she held several posts in academia including Chancellor of the University of Colorado and senior fellow at Howard University's Institute for the Study of Educational Policy. In 1987 Berry accepted the Geraldine R. Segal chair as Professor of American Social Thought at the University of Pennsylvania.
Berry entered public service in 1977, when she was appointed assistant secretary of education, a post she held until 1979. Berry joined the U.S. Commission for Civil Rights in 1980, serving as its vice-chairman until 1982. An outspoken critic of the Reagan administration, Berry charged that the commission was becoming too compliant in its relations with the administration. Her prominence increased after a federal court ruled that Reagan did not have the authority to remove her from the commission.
During the remainder of the 1980s Berry continued to provoke public debate about civil and human rights. She helped found the Free South Africa Movement and was arrested outside the South African embassy in 1984 for protesting against apartheid.
Berry has also made distinguished contributions to historical and legal scholarship. Her book Black Resistance/White Law (1971) became a controversial, but groundbreaking, work on the relationship between racism and the Constitution. Among Berry's other works are The Black Experience in America (1982, with John Blassingame) and Military Necessity and Civil Rights Policy (1977).