- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 23, 2014


Marion Barry, 78, collapsed shortly after midnight Sunday, and before the clock struck 2 a.m., he was pronounced dead.

Some might say that heaven and hell prepared a place for him, as he often was at odds with other Democrats and liberals and the D.C. business community that was used to running the city.

Mr. Barry effectively and essentially represented the new South for Washingtonians and the new feisty urban black in the political shifts occurring across America. He became a darling of liberal residents because he was waking up this Southern city.

He outlived Jim Crow in Mississippi, Arkansas and Tennessee, and he meandered to D.C. before recognizing his mainstream political self.

During his four terms as mayor and many years as a lawmaker, he bested federal prosecutors, the Internal Revenue Service and the police on several occasions.

He rose to become the example of urban black leadership — before and after Harold Washington, David Dinkins, Maynard Jackson, Tom Bradley and others. Mr. Barry also created the political springboard that some D.C. Council members, including Tommy Wells and his Republican nemesis, Carol Schwartz, tried to emulate.

Although Mr. Barry fell short of freeing D.C. from its constitutional shackles, he did help loosen them by becoming the dashiki-, sunglass-wearing face and voice of the “Free D.C.” movement of the 1960s.

Once this Barry-cat was out of the bag, he never went back.

First becoming mayor in 1979, Mr. Barry did so by beating fellow Democrat Walter Washington, who initially was sworn in as appointed mayor in 1967 and won one elected term in 1974 as the District’s first post-home-rule mayor.

Washington was not, however, considered the people’s mayor. By the end of the decade, voters wanted Mr. Barry, a visionary who had stepped on the first rung of the city’s political ladder: the Board of Education.

In his autobiography, Mr. Barry explains why he thought that, prior to the self-governance act of 1973, ignorance was keeping D.C. blacks on a “plantation.”

“With Home Rule, we planned to bring the government back to the common people of Washington and do away with the old system of governmental ignorance that treated the black people of Washington like a plantation,” Mr. Barry wrote in “Mayor for Life: The Incredible Story of Marion Barry, Jr.”

His clear vision was perhaps sewn as a cotton-picking youth, or the discipline of maintaining newspaper routes, or as an Eagle Scout, or as a student majoring in chemistry, or in the reserves, or as youth organizer and Cain-raiser during the heady 1960s, when seemingly most Americans were pocketed either for or against the government.

Perhaps it was all of the above, as well as the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which also taught Mr. Barry the indispensable art of political compromise.

Like his fellow members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Mr. Barry, John Lewis and others huddled over Mr. Lewis’ 1963 speech — which ruffled some march organizers’ feathers because it originally said President Kennedy’s federal civil rights proposal was “too little and too late.” Mr. Lewis urged a march “through the heart of Dixie, the way Sherman did.” Other phrases deemed political hot irons were removed as well.

Throughout his book, Mr. Barry puts all his selves on display. There is the young Marion of a poor, disjointed family, the college-age Marion who, smart as the dickens, took to organizing and activism like a sponge to water, and the Marion Barry who put one foot onto the right ladder at the perfect time. School board. School board president. Citywide politician. Budget committee chairman. Mayor. Mayor. Mayor. Creator of Prince George’s County’s substantial black middle class. (Or Ward 9, as it’s known in the vernacular.) Fall from grace.

Federal prosecutors tried to nab Barry cronies and Barry buddies. Sometimes they succeeded and sometimes not. The feds even tried to snare him in a drug net with city employee and Barry acquaintance Charles Lewis. Mr. Barry slid away scot-free. But he wasn’t so lucky the night of Jan. 18, 1990, when Mr. Barry was caught on tape with a crack pipe in his mouth and a woman not his wife, Hazel Diane “Rasheeda” Moore. After the tape seen ‘round the world, Mr. Barry went to rehab and after his conviction to prison.

Upon his return in 1992, his political juice led him to the Ward 8 council seat and an unprecedented fourth run and victory in the mayor’s race. It also led to hits from the White House and Congress, and Mr. Barry’s appointment of Anthony A. Williams to control the city’s purse strings to placate them.

Mr. Barry elected against seeking a fifth mayoral term but ran for D.C. Council representing Ward 8, home to the city’s most downtrodden and least-educated residents.

Mr. Barry’s legacy ended where it began: battling for the have-nots of the world.

Much of the media and even President Obama mentioned Mr. Barry’s effect on D.C.

“Through a storied, at times tumultuous, life and career, he earned the love and respect of countless Washingtonians, and Michelle and I extend our deepest sympathies to Marion’s family, friends and constituents today,” Mr. Obama said.

Yet Mr. Barry’s touch reached people around the globe — from a game or concert at the Verizon Center to a convention or entertainment affair at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, and from professional development training at the Reeves Municipal Center to his sister-city efforts with foreign capitals and small-business trade routes. He also gave his “yea” to baseball and soccer stadium projects.

Mr. Barry was the main reason D.C. is often viewed as a corrupt, mismanaged city, and he walked the walk and talked the talk with the kidney problems, the prostate problems and the diabetes. He was hospitalized on and off over the past couple of years, and serious virus issues led many to believe he was down and out.

In recent months, he needed assistance doing little things, such as getting out of a chair or walking up stairs. Mr. Barry’s mind and his political self, however, were as sharp as those prickly cotton plants of his youth.

Mrs. Schwartz, who twice tried to unseat Mr. Barry and gave the mayor’s race another run this month, called Mr. Barry a “dear friend” and said it best: “I am shaken and saddened as I, like others, thought Marion Barry was invincible.”

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2021 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide