Author Dr. Mary Frances Berry

The author and professor joins us to discuss her latest book Five Dollars and a Pork Chop Sandwich: Vote Buying and the Corruption of Democracy.

Dr. Mary Frances Berry has fought for justice and civil rights for over four decades. She has a distinguished career in public service, including serving as chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. She also became the first woman and African American to serve as chancellor of the University of Colorado at Boulder and has held several faculty appointments, including at the University of Pennsylvania, where she's a professor of history and is author of many acclaimed works including her latest book, Five Dollars and a Pork Chop Sandwich: Vote Buying and the Corruption of Democracy.  

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.

Tonight, a conversation with Dr. Mary Frances Berry. The former Chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and now a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania is out with a new text titled “Five Dollars and a Pork Chop Sandwich.”

Stay tuned. We’ll explain. A conversation with Mary Frances Berry coming up right now.

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Tavis: Dr. Mary Frances Berry is the former Chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and now a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania. Her latest text is called “Five Dollars and a Pork Chop Sandwich.” How could you not love that title [laugh]?

“Five Dollars and a Pork Chop Sandwich: Vote Buying and the Corruption of Democracy” explains that some campaign voter turnout activities are just another form of voter suppression. We’ll get into that tonight with Mary Frances Berry. Always an honor to have you on this program.

Mary Frances Berry: Thank you for having me, Tavis.

Tavis: Let me ask you to explain where this title comes from first.

Berry: All right.

Tavis: Then we’re going to come back to the book after we talk some politics.

Berry: Let me tell you, though, two things. One is that a guy named Greg Malveaux, Black law enforcement officer who was head of the State Fraud Division in Louisiana for about three years till they got rid of him [laugh] for doing a good job,

I ran into him in City Hall in New Orleans a few years ago. He said, “Dr. Perry, Dr. Perry, I’m working for a council person here, but I’ve been looking for you.” I said, “Why are you looking for me?” He said, “I got something I want you to read.”

So I figured he wanted me to read like four or five pages. He said, “Can I bring it by it where you’re staying?” He did. Box after box after box of materials that he copied when he was investigating voter vote buying in Louisiana, and he had copied everything that he had. “I want you to read it because it need to be written about.”

I was working on something else, but I read it. And once I read it, it reminded me of everything I already knew about how campaigns buy poor peoples’ votes for a little bit of chump change and then vote them old people who they get absentee ballots from, signatures, and I decided I was going to write it.

But then the title came from an old woman down in one of the towns in Louisiana. When he went to see her, he said, “Tell me. Your name came up. You know anything about all this vote buying?”

She said, “What you talking about?” He told her. She said, “Well, since I was a girl, I been doing this.” She said, “They come by here, the preacher or somebody come by from the campaign and they tell me these numbers.

I’m gonna to take you to the courthouse and you go in there and tell clerk so-and-so you want to vote these numbers and you go in there and vote them and she’ll tell me that you did it and then come back and get in the car.” “They’d take me down to the daiquiri shop.” You drive through daiquiri shops in Louisiana. “And they’d buy me a pork chop sandwich and get me a cold drink and they’d take me home and they give me $5.”

She said, “You know, politicians ain’t gonna to do nothing for you. They promise you they gonna fix the roof on the school, they gonna fix the street. They all do it. But, doggone it, I know I’m gonna get my $5 and my pork chop sandwich.” [laugh]

Tavis: Well, now you know where the title comes from. I want to come back to vote buying, voter fraud, voter manipulation, voter suppression, all those issues in a moment. But I’d be remiss to have you here and not talk a little politics. Can we?

Berry: Sure. Go right ahead.

Tavis: I’m sure you saw Michelle Alexander’s piece about why Hillary doesn’t…

Berry: Yes, I did. I read it. Very powerful, powerful piece.

Tavis: So her argument was that Hillary Clinton doesn’t deserve the Black vote. Obviously, you and I both know there’s a distinction between winning something and deserving it, receiving it and deserving it. We’ve seen South Carolina. Again, Super Tuesday tomorrow. She’s winning the Black vote, but does she deserve the Black vote?

Berry: Well, she doesn’t deserve it because she hasn’t done anything in particular for Black people that means that they should expect that she’s the one who they should bless with the gift of their vote. It’s really going to come down to the lesser of two evils, in my opinion, when the election comes.

And I think she’s winning the Black vote. Black people who are over the 50 or in their 60s and so on, 70, they remember the Clinton days if they’re professionals as days when you could go to the White House to a party, a reception.

The minister could bring his wife and sleep in the Lincoln bedroom [laugh] and the president might even come by in the morning and have coffee with you before you left. And people like Ben Johnson who ran One America Forum, a Black guy, would always make sure thatall the Black folksthat their hands got touched.

And you could be over there all the time. Some of them said, “We come over here so often, we’re tired of coming over here.” [laugh] So it was a personal kind of thing. The caucus  supported him through impeachment, his strongest, most stalwart one.

I once told Bill Clinton that I’d give him about a C, and he used to say that on civil rights that he was better than all those other presidents we’d had since Johnson. But you think about who ran since Johnson [laugh]. But in any case, I think that it’s going to be a comparison between her, if she gets the nomination and it looks like she might, and the other person on the other side.

So people have to vote the way they think they ought to vote, but I don’t think you could say she deserves the Black vote. That’s like she already did so much for you that, therefore, you got to go with her.

Tavis: If Donald Trump ends up being that other person that you referenced a moment ago…

Berry: Oh, oh…

Tavis: I could ask you any number of questions about him, but speaking of voters and being informed voters and not being taken for granted, how is it that Donald Trump or anybody else–but since we’re talking about him–can get this far with so little specificity?

Berry: He can get this far because the phenomenon with Trump is that people are so disgusted–the people voting for him–they’re so disgusted with the system and they’re so disgusted with the people they been electing before who, in their view, didn’t do a doggone thing for them.

So they figure, well, at least, why don’t we try him, you know [laugh]? In their view, it can’t be any worse than it was before. American people who listen to news don’t really all the time know and understand specifics and sometimes they don’t have the patience for them, and they’ve learned too not to believe politicians.

It’s like the woman down in Louisiana who said they’re not gonna fix the school even though they told you they were. They have learned from experience that people don’t do what they say, so they said let us try somebody who’s not a politician and see if he’ll do what he says.

Tavis: You gave Bill Clinton a C on civil rights.

Berry: He used to say that.

Tavis: He used to say that…

Berry. He told everybody that that I gave him about a C [laugh].

Tavis: Is that true?

Berry: Well, yeah, sort of [laugh].

Tavis: Okay, I’ll leave that alone. But since you are the longest serving Chair ever of the Civil Rights Commission, how has Barack Obama done on civil rights?

Berry: Barack Obama has done about as well as he could do, given the situation he was in. Thurgood used to say, “I do the best I can with what I have.” [laugh].

Tavis: The best I can with what I have. That’s right, yeah.

Berry: Well, he’s done the best he can, and Eric Holder was, in my view, a pretty great attorney general. I mean, he tried to do everything…

Tavis: Except for Wall Street. They let Wall Street slide, Dr. Berry.

Berry: Wall Street and not getting anybody convicted and all that stuff. Our biggest problem in this country is attacking the economic system, which leaves us where we are. And it’s true, and Obama knows this himself and I think he’s probably sorry about it, that Black unemployment and the way Black people did economically was worse throughout his whole presidency than for anybody else.

Every time you looked at the Bureau of Labor Statistics data, you would see that Blacks were down at the bottom over and over again. And even the Black Caucus said, “Why don’t you have some targeted job programs for Black people? Don’t call it Black. Call it targeted for those who are doing the worst? That’ll be us.” [laugh] But he could not find a way to do any of that and I’m sure he’s sorry about it.

Tavis: You are a professor of history, as I mentioned, at UPenn. I’ve had this conversation with so many friends. I haven’t see you in a little while, so I’m glad you’re here. I have said–I was on a book tour earlier this year for my “Covenant with Black America: Ten Years Later” book…

Berry: Right. Great book.

Tavis: Thank you. The book underscores what you just said. Over the last 10 years, Black folk have lost ground in every major economic category. That’s not to cast aspersion on him exclusively, President Obama.

Berry: No, no, not on him exclusively.

Tavis: Exactly. But we’ve lost ground in every category. The question is, since you teach history, how are the historians in the future going to juxtapose this reality that, in the era of the first Black president, the bottom fell out for Black America?

Berry: What they’re going to say, I think, what I would say if I were writing it, is that there are a lot of good things about the Obama era and that he tried very hard to do some things, but that the economic system and the power of people who have money in this society and who control things is so great that even he, unless he made the whole structure totter, in his mind probably he thought that he wasn’t able to do anything about it.

And also he didn’t want to focus on Blacks during his first four years and some people said, “Well, maybe he’ll do it in this next four years after he gets reelected.”

But the people he had around him and the way the economic system works, it would take somebody with a lot of courage and belief in their own goals and objectives and a way that they could find a way to actually do something. So I don’t really blame him for it. I consider it a tragedy. That’s what I consider it.

Tavis: Did he not believe enough? Was he not bold enough? Is that the point you’re making? That he could have been bolder?

Berry: He could have been bolder if he believed he had a solution and that he could implement it. I don’t think he thinks he could have implemented it.

Tavis: Okay. So what then is–I love talking to you. So what then–I wish I was in your classes at UPenn. I could do this every day. What then is the lesson to Black people writ large about what they believed to be the power of the presidency that, for all their support of him, he still couldn’t deliver them?

Berry: What they have to understand is that there is a system of power and people who have power and who decide who is going to get what in the society. And that capitalism by definition requires inequality. That’s the definition. When I tell students that, they look at me puzzled.

It requires inequality. The only question is, who’s going to be unequal? Who’s going to be on the bottom? Who’s going to be at the top? And it also has to do with pressure that you bring to bear. Black people throughout the Obama presidency love Obama. I love Obama too. I love the idea of his presidency.

I love the idea of him and him, but I believe in putting pressure on politicians to make them do something. If you’re not the squeaky wheel, you won’t get any oil, and you have to make them do things. That’s what was said to A. Philip Randolph about FDR.

You have to make a president–we love Obama so much that we aren’t willing to make him do anything because we say–I’ve gone to church and heard people say, “We just want him to get through these eight years and make it and, Lord, not embarrass himself. Oh, Lord, please.” [laugh] And that’s enough [laugh].

Tavis: Well, he’s almost done that. He’s almost done it, yeah.

Berry: So we shouldn’t put any pressure on him because then, you know, he might be scared or something might happen. So let’s just pray for him, Lord, keep him in your arms. You go to church, man? You go to church, you’ll hear that [laugh].

Tavis: I’ve heard that many times, trust me. I’ve heard it more times than I want to hear it. All the hell I’ve caught in the last seven years for trying to put pressure on the president, but I digress on that. But here’s another question, though.

So another colleague of ours who used to teach at UPenn, I think, Michael Eric Dyson was at UPenn where you are. He was there years ago. So Dyson wrote a piece not long ago, as I recall, and the title was essentially why Hillary can or might get more done on race matters than Obama did.

Obviously, you can see the argument that Obama was so boxed in because he is a Black man that, as a white woman, Hillary might be able to take us farther on these issues than Obama did. Does that have any…

Berry: Oh, let me comment. I think that’s true. I think it’s true as much as I hate to say, as Michael Eric Dyson already said it, but in fact, if Hillary Clinton is elected and Black votes helped to put her there, she will be more inclined to try some things aside from people sleeping in the Lincoln bedroom because she will want to get reelected and she will want Blacks to not be screaming and yelling…

Tavis: But Obama got elected with Black votes. It’s got to be more than that.

Berry: She will not want the Black people who voted for her to fall away from her the next time because they’ll be so embarrassed and their children and everybody will be telling them, “You shouldn’t vote for her again. She didn’t do anything.”

Tavis: But Obama got elected with Black votes and he didn’t feel the pressure to do that.

Berry: No, but Obama knew that no one was going to say anything. They were going to love him. As some of the Black leaders told me after they went to a meeting at the White House with him early on that they tried to complain about something and they were told by one of his assistants there–I won’t say who…

Tavis: I know who it was [laugh].

Berry: That what they should do is just support him and not be criticizing him because the Black love him, you see. So Hillary cannot rely as much that people will continue to love her because she’s not Black, you know.

Tavis: That’s right, yeah.

Berry: So, therefore, I think she might be more inclined to do some things and she might be given more leeway with those who control the system because they understand that she needs to do a few things.

Tavis: So you are, obviously, Black and you are a woman.

Berry: Obviously [laugh]. Tavis is learning something [laugh].

Tavis: Okay, ba-da-bump. Mary Frances Berry busting my chops on that. My question is–I said that because…

Berry: And I know you’re going to clean up the tape, but go ahead [laugh].

Tavis: No, I’m going to leave that in. We don’t clean up tapes around here. We’ll leave it in. It was funny, though. I only prefaced that because I’m curious as to your take on this, which I think might be unique. Why is it–I just asked this question of Secretary Clinton when she was on this program a week or so ago. Why is it you think that women are not rallying around her the way Black folk did around him?

Berry: Because Black folks were more desperate to have a Black president than women are desperate to have a woman president because of the way things have changed more positively for women than they have for Black people generally, okay? The young women, they don’t see the need as much as Black people saw the need and the whole symbolism of that story.

So that’s the reason why they say, “Well, if she gets elected, fine. If she doesn’t get elected, then we’ll wait until someday there’ll be another.” So they don’t consider it as much of something that they really just have to have as the Black people who saw Obama as a savior and that this might be the only time we could ever get anybody.

Tavis: One last question, then to your book. What do you make of the phenomenon of the tsunami that is Bernie Sanders? Whether he wins or loses, what do you make of this?

Berry: I think what I make of Bernie Sanders is that, for the first time in my memory, you have someone who’s in a major party–and he’s running on the Democratic ticket–who is in fact challenging the capitalism’s imperatives. Usually, nobody does that, which is why people are so astounded when he does it.

And he understands that this thing about requiring inequality with capitalism, that what you do is you sort of smooth off the rough edges by helping the people farthest down and that you have to do that. And that when people disobey the law, no matter how rich or powerful they are, you have to take them into account.

And he’s saying all of that, so people are astonished and they’re also astonished, as one young person told me, “He seems to just say things without worrying about whether he’s going to get a job.” I said, “Well, at this point, I’m sure he’s not that worried.” [laugh]

Tavis: He knows he might not, yeah.

Berry: He’s not that worried that he might not, but it’s because here you have a major party. It would be different if it were a third party out there talking about these issues. But here he is bringing it into the discussion and into the mainstream.

Tavis: And getting votes for doing it.

Berry: And people are voting for him.

Tavis: “Voting Buying and the Corruption of Democracy”, still ongoing?

Berry: Yes.

Tavis: In what ways?

Berry: Vote buying is still ongoing. Campaigns use street money. Some people call it “walk-around” money. I’ve got it in Chicago, Philadelphia. If you look around, wherever you folks live, you’re going to see that campaigns have this money and that’s why some voters always say when somebody comes up, “You gonna vote for…”, “What are you gonna give me for it?”

And what they do is take advantage of poor people or old people who are in nursing homes and other kinds of marginalized people and get them to vote for him by giving what I call chump change, some little bit of something here, a little bit of something there.

And that’s to get turnout because turnout’s been low even during Obama’s two elections. Turnout was not as high as people thought it was, and this happens more in state and local campaigns.

Here’s the problem with it. It’s not the poor people who get the $5, the pork chop sandwich. It’s the campaigns because the state and local officials get elected with their votes and they don’t do anything for them. They go to the legislature and vote against Medicaid expansion. They go to the legislature and don’t figure out what’s going on with the water in Flint.

They do all these things even after they have used the street money to do this, so what we need to do is we need to organize poor people so that they know you can get more for your vote than $5 and a pork chop sandwich.

If all you get together, you can get a heck of a lot–you might even get the school roof fixed or you might get something done that you need, and our organizations don’t organize.

They organize them to get out the vote, the same vote that’s been getting out all the time to vote for the same people, but they don’t organize them to use the power of their vote to demand more than these little bits of chump change.

Tavis: I wonder, no matter how compelling poor people might organize, whether or not the system is so rigged, it’s so dysfunctional that our campaign finance laws are so weak, that their effort is not enough over and above against what the campaign finance laws allow these campaigns to do with that soft money.

Berry: Well, that’s where the money comes from that the campaigns give to the poor people with a little chump change. They get it from, you know, raising the money. I don’t know whether it will work or not, but if you got enough poor people together who in fact went out and demanded it change, that’s in the history of this country.

I mean, the whole civil rights movement was about a whole bunch of people who you would never thought would have been able to do anything going out and doing it.

Tavis: That’s right.

Berry: But our organizations don’t organize poor people to do what I just said. They organize them to vote for candidates. They don’t organize them to put pressure on candidates and to use their vote to support candidates who seem unlikely. You know, you could argue that our organizations would be asking people to vote for somebody like Bernie in a national election.

I’m not saying one should, but, you know, I’m not saying one way or the other. But some people would say that, in fact, because then it would be somebody who would be taking a different approach and they might gather together to try to support them.

Tavis: But since you went there, though, what do you make then–just a question. What then do you make of the Black political establishment just lining up behind Hillary Clinton? That Bernie hadn’t even been given a fair shot?

Berry: Because they’re Democrats and because they don’t see him as a Democrat. I heard some guy say that the other day. “He’s not really a Democrat.” So they want to support a Democrat, people they’re comfortable with. They like the Clintons. I like them too, okay? What’s not to like?

But in fact, they feel comfortable. They know what’s going to happen. They know where the patronage is going to come. They know that there won’t be any surprises, they hope.

So, therefore, they’re not willing to take a chance and they really don’t believe that the system can be changed. They mean that when they say that, and it’s hard to believe that, that if Bernie got elected, he would be able to do anything. They think the system is just going to go on and on just the way it is.

Tavis: So how, then…

Berry: How can we change that?

Tavis: Yes.

Berry: How can we change that?

Tavis: That’s the question, yeah.

Berry: Yeah. Well, the only way we can change that is to keep–all I’ve done all my life is just keep telling people the truth and go everywhere I can and tell them what’s happening to them and hope that somehow somebody else will join in doing that. You been doing that all your life, but that’s all we can do.

Tavis: We could have a serious conversation about that because I feel you and I thank God for you every day because you have been a truth-teller for all your years in public service. You have done that. I celebrate you for that and am always honored to have you on this program.

Yet I’ve come to understand it’s not going to stop me from doing what I do in my own little corner of the world, but I sometimes wonder whether or not people want to hear truth. I wonder whether or not they want to be comforted in their own situation, but the truth can be so unsettling. Sometimes the truth is just too subversive for people to handle.

Berry: Well, and it’s hard for people to dream and believe that something can happen that they haven’t seen happen before. They think business goes on as usual. That’s why in the other party there are a lot of people supporting Trump and they’re supporting him because they too are looking for something different.

We may not agree with whatever different is they’re looking at, but they are looking and they’re saying what we have now doesn’t work, so let’s try something different.

Tavis: Are you at all concerned that the issues that you write about in this book, “Vote Buying and the Corruption of Our Democracy”, will have a major impact or influence in the outcome of this election cycle?

Berry: I think that, if people understand the message that’s there, people who are real advocates for poor people will demand that political operatives and the organizations that they belong to, whether it’s churches or the NAACP or ACLU, whatever the organizations are, organize poor people to have candidates or demand candidates or demand that candidates are accountable for whatever they say they’re going to do, if it has any kind of impact at all.

Tavis: On the flip side of this right quickly, what does it say to you that, even with $100 million, Jeb Bush couldn’t bust a grape?

Berry: It says something about Jeb Bush because I was waiting for Jeb Bush to get nominated so that I could bring out all the stuff we got on him on the Bush v. Gore election when I subpoenaed him down there in those hearings. And I was just waiting for him to get nominated so I could talk about it and then the cat didn’t get nominated [laugh].

Tavis: Your boxes are gathering dust in the garage still [laugh].

Berry: Absolutely [laugh].

Tavis: No need to pull those out [laugh].

Berry: Absolutely [laugh].

Tavis: The new book from the longest-serving Chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Dr. Mary Frances Berry, is called “Five Dollars and a Pork Chop Sandwich: Vote Buying and the Corruption of Democracy”. As I said three times already, a delight always, madam, to have you on this program.

Berry: Well, thank you.

Tavis: Thank you. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.

Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.

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Last modified: March 3, 2016 at 2:32 pm