On Saturday afternoon, the Brandeis community bestowed the highest form of university recognition upon two alums: social justice activist Roy DeBerry ’70, MA ’78, PhD ’79, and founding editor in chief of Lilith magazine Susan Weidman Schneider ’65. 

Interim President Lisa Lynch presented the Alumni Achievement Award to both DeBerry and Schneider for their distinguished contributions to their professions and chosen fields of endeavors.

Previous winners of the award include Roderick Mackinnon ’78, a Nobel Prize-winning scientist; Marta Kauffman ’78 and David Krane ’79, co-creators of “Friends”; Thomas Friedman, foreign affairs columnist for the New York Times and Robert Zimmer ’68, president of the University of Chicago. 

The Alumni Achievement Awards were presented on Oct. 24th before a full crowd of students, family, faculty and alumni in the Faculty Club.

This week, justFeatures sat down with DeBerry and Schneider before the awards ceremony to learn about their experiences at Brandeis and about their notable careers that followed. 

If you happened to walk by the location of the current Shapiro Campus Center on Jan. 8 1969, you would have witnessed the infamous 11-day takeover of Ford Hall, the central academic building at the time. The occupation by about 70 students sought to demand better minority representation at the University. Roy DeBerry ’70, MA ’78, PhD ’79, one of the leaders of the takeover, was a recipient at Saturday’s Alumni Achievement Awards ceremony to honor his social activism as a student and his continued social activism in his professional career. DeBerry receieved the award alongside Susan Weidman Schneider ’65.

As president of the Brandeis Afro-American Society, DeBerry, along with other student leaders and advisors, helped stage the demonstration. He authored a list of 10 demands for the University to meet in order for the occupation to end. They called for complete amnesty from the University for all students, faculty and staff involved in the protests in addition to establishing an African American Studies Department, increase black student recruitment and add black professors to various departments. President Morris Abram stated that every legitimate demand would be met in good faith.

After 11 days, the occupation ended when the University agreed to address two thirds of the demands, ultimately leading to the establishment of an African-American studies department, the hiring of additional black faculty and the recruitment of more students of color. 

“We believed that our cause was right, and so when you believe your cause is right and you believe that you’re pretty much within that tradition of social justice, then you move — but it’s done collectively. It’s not about me — it was about a collective effort of a lot of students,” DeBerry said in an interview with the Justice. 

According to DeBerry, he and the students would not have been able to survive the 11 days in Ford Hall without the help of many students, faculty and administrators. Although some people opposed the occupation, there were many non-black students who supported it. “That’s just life, right? You’re going to have some people support your cause and you’re going to have some people who oppose, and that’s part of quote-unquote what ‘representative democracy’ is all about, and it seems like it’s certainly what the University is about,” DeBerry said. 

DeBerry credits the momentum for change on campus to the turbulent times of the Civil Rights Movement, and specifically the assassinations of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and of Robert Kennedy in 1968. The assassinations encouraged DeBerry and other student leaders to reintroduce the 10 demands to the administration and refuse to leave Ford Hall until those demands were met. 

“We said, collectively, that we wanted to be engaged in who would head that [African-American Studies] department, so back then, we wanted to be involved in some [of] the decision-making rights — which was, I think, new for Brandeis, and that was an innovation that I think we introduced,” DeBerry said. 

Alongside the surrounding tensions, DeBerry stated that “Brandeis recognized diversity was not where it should be.” He claims that “you could pretty much count the people of color on your hand,” so Brandeis started the Carnegie Program to get students from working class backgrounds and of different races to attend the University. DeBerry took part in this program in 1965, coming from Holly Springs, Miss. DeBerry then began his first year at Brandeis in 1966. 

DeBerry expressed that the occupiers were students first and did primarily what all students do while on campus. That being said, the state of the country in the midst of the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement deeply affected student culture. 

“All this was taking place. And then, of course, Brandeis had those activist students, both black and white, who wanted the University to reflect that change, so it was a very impacting time to be on campus because things were changing. We were young,  of course, 19 to 20, but we felt very much a part of that movement. And sometimes lead that movement,” he said. 

DeBerry was not surprised that the student protest of Ford Hall got pushback from the administration. He explained that anything that promotes change in a significant way is always going to get pushback, but that it doesn’t mean you are always right. 

DeBerry continues social activism in his native community in Holly Springs, Mississippi. He organized the Hill Country Project, a nonprofit organization which records stories of the residents of Benton County who lived through the civil rights movement, and they also provide education support to the local school district. “People know about icons, but who they don’t know are the local people who significantly contributed to make the country an operational democracy. We want to do this so they can hear about these stories,” he said.

For DeBerry, Brandeis has fostered his “healthy dose of skepticism,” by teaching him to always ask questions and not just accept things as they are. Observing campus while visiting today, he believes that the University has progressed drastically in creating a welcoming, diverse community. 

When asked what he thinks of the University’s theme of social justice, he answered,  “what I found in the ’60s is, it’s one thing to say a statement, ‘social justice,’ but how do you operationalize it? And you operationalize it by doing things. You look around, you see there’s not the kind of equity, the kind of human rights, educational rights and diversity that there ought to be — then you change that to make it reflect the statement. So I think the statement has always been there, but it was our obligation as students at the time to make that operational … And, of course change has happened. But change sometimes has to be encourage, has to be pushed. I don’t think it happens automatically.”