Marion Barry was Mayor of the District of Columbia for 16 years and a City Councilmember for almost 16 more years. He made significant and lasting contributions to the nation’s capital. The District of Columbia just wrapped up a three-day commemoration to the former mayor that thousands of people attended.
Since his death on November 23, 2014, Marion Barry has stayed on my mind. His death has crystallized the reservoir of love and deep respect I have for him. I have spent a good deal of time in recent days listening to those who knew him best tell little-known stories about Barry’s kindness, compassion, political savvy, survival skills, and prodigious intellect.
I came to Washington, D.C. in 1996, armed with the idea that if I were a good a journalist then the District of Columbia would be the ideal place to test that theory. At the Washington Times newspaper, local government was one of my beats so I came in regular contact with Mayor Barry. At the time, the District of Columbia, enmeshed in myriad financial difficulties, would see Congress snatch control of the city and place it in the hands of the D.C. Financial Control Board.
Through Dr. Linda Wharton Boyd, Barry lured me away from the Washington Times and for more than three years, I served as his speechwriter. I was not his friend or confidante, but I had the opportunity to sit in his office off to the corner, watch him closely, learn from him, quiz him about politics and strategies, and pepper him with questions of all kinds. I saw history unfold and watched luminaries step across the threshold including Dr. Betty Shabazz, James Farmer, Winnie Mandela, Coretta Scott King, Dr. Dorothy Height, Lawrence Guyot, and Gladys Knight.
If I had never met him, I would be left with faulty impressions painted by the media of a race-baiter, a man who presided over a corrupt empire and someone who represented the worst in a black elected official. But to see him up close was to see a thing of beauty. I saw Barry walk into a room of seniors, greet scores by name – without cue cards – inquire about their children, grandchildren and spouses. He made people feel as if they were the center of the universe. He would engage them, laugh and hug them, chat, and take pictures. The seniors loved it. We would go to parks and the mayor would be mobbed by children, hugged and loved up. Everywhere we went, I would hear people thank Barry profusely for giving them their first job, their first paycheck through his Summer Youth Employment Program. In some cases, it was multi-generational, with parents, children, and grandchildren having gone through the program.
As a journalist, it is not uncommon to come in contact with those in the public eye and see some act as if they are demi-gods, waiting for the unwashed to genuflect and kiss their rings. Mayor Barry was different. He was proud and he expected to be treated with respect but he never acted as if he were lord of the manor. My son, then about seven, would come after school and spend time at the office of the mayor. Barry never failed to greet him, inquire about school and encourage him to keep up his grades. As a father, that meant a lot and my son would always become giddy with excitement.
Well before his passing, some whites and other Barry critics would ask me why blacks loved him so and the answer was simple: he was the black community’s shining prince, warts and all.
It is good to remember that the past is prologue. When Barry came to Washington in 1965, Washington was a sleepy Southern town. Politically, socially, and economically, the city was a mirror-image of its counterparts in the Deep South. Whites dominated and controlled the city affairs and politics, and white segregationists in Congress kept the city under their boot. Color served as the dividing line between blacks and whites and a sometime brutish all-white police department kept black people in line. Black Washingtonians had no voice, no means to advance, and had to be content with a subservient role, if they had one at all. In 1978, in a city more than 70 percent black, few blacks worked for the D.C. government, most city officials were white, and an entrenched white business community operated with impunity.
Barry’s elevation as the city’s chief executive came to symbolize the power, promise, and enigma of Washington, D.C. He represented a new breed of black politicians: brash, unapologetic, and savvy. So it is no surprise that when Barry became mayor in 1979, he tossed the status quo on its head. He brought in blacks and placed them in prominent roles throughout the city, seeking to bring parity to a city where blacks had long dominated numerically. Barry brought the best and brightest people into his administration, presided over the explosion of the District’s black middle class, and is often credited for spurring the rapid growth of middle and upper class blacks in Prince George’s County, Maryland. He awarded the city’s cable franchise to Bob Johnson of Black Entertainment Television and laid the foundation for R. Donahue Peeples to become a billionaire real estate magnate.
By demanding that 35 percent of all government contracts be directed to minority businesses, Barry pried open the door in construction and other industries tightly closed to women, non-whites, and other ethnicities. I have spoken to Barry’s colleagues and former employees who talked about him walking into a room to meet with representatives of companies seeking to do business in the city and asking why there were no blacks at the table. Many times, he made a U-turn and walked out, saying the meeting would resume when there was black representation at the meeting.
As a young man, Barry earned his civil rights pedigree, when while in his 20s, he dropped out of graduate school at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, a dissertation short of a Ph.D. in organic chemistry. He joined other young activists in sit-ins, marches and other acts of civil disobedience as he embraced the civil rights struggle full time. Barry worked alongside the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and was named the first national president of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
Later, Barry moved to Washington, D.C. to work for SNCC. He formed Pride, Inc., an organization that fought for the rights of Washington’s black majority, taught life skills, and linked the unemployed – primarily ex-offenders and young people – with jobs. He entered city politics in 1971 when he won a seat on the District of Columbia School Board, serving as president before securing an at-large seat on the first popularly elected city council, the first under Home Rule. He became the District of Columbia’s second mayor and was sworn into office on January 2, 1979 by Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. Barry won re-election in 1982, 1986, and 1994. He served six months for a drug offense and surprised just about everyone when he ran and won his last term as mayor in 1994. He stepped down from the mayor’s office in 1999. But in 2004, Barry won re-election to the District of Columbia City Council to represent Ward 8, a predominantly black and poor section of the city east of the Anacostia River. Barry was serving his third term at the time of his death.
Barry’s Ward 8 constituents saw him as icon, role model, and inspiration. They identified with his humanness, seeing themselves in him, flaws, foibles, and all. He, like them, could fall from grace but he never stayed down. This reality and the redemptive quality of his life drew him ever-closer to African Americans not just in Ward 8 but all over the city. The unquestioned support many blacks gave him confounded critics and others who savored the idea that Barry might tumble and stay down. Those he loved and who loved him were always rooting for him to rise like a phoenix. Simmering resentment in some parts of the black community because of the constant negative press coverage of Barry by most of the city’s newspapers did not endear them to that community. People especially chafed at the efforts of the Fourth Estate to color the mayor as some type of buffoon. But those who knew him saw a man of conviction with a lightning-quick mind, a facility to absorb and hold all types of information, a man who was always prepared, and someone possessing insatiable curiosity.
The people’s love for Marion Barry was evident in the outpouring of affection seen after his death and the three days of commemoration where dignitaries from all over the country and the world, including Jesse Jackson, Minister Louis Farrakhan and Eleanor Norton Holmes paid tribute to Barry’s life and work. In honoring Mayor Marion Barry, people honor the best in themselves.
Barrington M, Salmon is an award-winning reporter. His beats included national and local politics, crime, education,immigration, health, urban affairs, and social welfare.