Love him or hate him, D.C. Councilman Barry knows his way around local bureaucracy. Three days ago his car was impounded for unpaid tickets and other violations. Today Mr. Barry is again cruising around town in his 2002 Jaguar after forking over $1,779 for $2,800 in unpaid tickets. In the words of our former mayor, “A number of people who heard about the issue called and offered to pay the balance, and I just want to express my gratitude for their kindness and generous offer,” Barry said. “I paid the balance of these tickets, in the amount of $2,339.00, from my own personal funds.” Unlike many politicians on the Council of the District of Columbia and Congress who went up in flames, Mayor Marion Barry was never accused of taking a dime from the city’s coffer or from unscrupulous individuals seeking a quid pro quo. Integrity was never in short supply even in his darkest days.
Unknown to Americans outside Washington, D.C., if “Marion” had owed ten times $2,800 and was unable to pay it, residents would have stood in line waving money to get him back on the road. Hundreds if not thousands can point to their first job in his administration that launched their careers and paved a path to the middle class. Moreover, electorates once relegated to the shadows of representative neglect gained a voice downtown and felt welcomed at the front entrance instead of the rear door, once the de facto “Colored” entrance where black residents went to work in uniforms with bent backs and low self-esteem. Marion stood tall the day he arrived in a city still mired in the vestiges of Jim Crow and often blatant exclusion.
Most in this country know little about the colorful and often vilified former mayor of the Nation’s Capital. If they know anything at all, the majority would point to the short chapter of his self-destruction instead of the decades of being one of the most transformational city leaders in the country. Unfortunately, dark clouds seem to leave more of an impression on memory than the sunny days that outnumber the sojourns of narcissistic behavior. The damage done to District’s reputation paled to the lingering effects of over-indulgence to his pride and health.
But who is Marion Barry besides the politician who was caught in a drug sting operation on January 18, 1990, at the Vista Hotel in downtown Washington, DC. Barry was arrested with former girlfriend, Hazel Diane "Rasheeda" Moore by the FBI and D.C. Police for crack cocaine use and possession. Ms. Moore had turned into an FBI informant before she enticed him with the promise of sex. Once there she encouraged him to smoke freebase cocaine before they went to bed, while agents watched from another room via a hidden camera. As he was being arrested, Barry shouted his anger in words that became fodder for late-night comedians: "Bitch set me up...I shouldn't have come up here...goddamn bitch.”
Long before Mr. Barry’s career literally went up in a puff of smoke, a young, dashiki-wearing Marion Barry came to D.C. in 1965 for the express purpose of managing the local Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) office, which then was located at the intersection at 13th and U Streets, in the heart of the Black business community. Today that block across the street from Ben’s Chili Bowl is in the center of an area known as the “U Street Corridor.” Now on most evenings one can often count the number of sepia faces within the sea of diversity, which many cite as the result of gentrification or a subway system to Prince Georges County.
When H. Rap Brown became chairman of SNCC in 1967, Barry quit and joined forces with fellow Fisk student Mary Treadwell to establish Pride, Inc., a Department of Labor-funded program to provide job training to unemployed black men. This became the platform which launched him again into the spotlight and an eventual run for public office. In 1971, a tonsured and business-suited Barry announced his candidacy for at-large member of the school board. He went on to defeat then incumbent Anita L. Allen for her long held seat. Barry became an out-spoken member of the board during his tenure (1971-1974).
After years of being micro-managed as a post-reconstruction plantation by southern members of Congress, in 1973, Washington got Home Rule, after an act of Congress was signed into law December that same year by then President Richard Nixon. Barry was elected as an at-large member of Washington's first elected city council. Notwithstanding the District of Columbia having Home Rule, its powers were precluded from the following:
- Lending for private projects;
- Imposing a tax on individuals who work in the District but live elsewhere;
- Making any changes to the Heights of Buildings Act of 1910;
- passing any law changing the composition or jurisdiction of the local courts;
- enacting a local budget that is not balanced
- absolute authority over the National Capital Planning Commission, Washington Aqueduct, or District of Columbia National Guard.
Despite being financially hamstrung by Congress, Barry served as chair of the District of Columbia Committee on Finance and Revenue. During his tenure minority contractors for the first time were able to bid on city projects from a level playing field. This infusion of money into the black community spurred the creation of new minority-owned businesses and seeded fallow fields of entrepreneurship.
In 1977, a group of Hanafi Muslims stormed the District Building (today the John A. Wilson Bldg.) and laid siege for two days. Councilman Barry was shot in the chest inside of his office. But always the proverbial phoenix, Barry recovered and used his new fame to propel him to a run for mayor.
Mayor Marion Barry served for three consecutive terms until his conviction and subsequent imprisonment for cocaine possession in 1991. Mr. Barry served a six-month sentence at two federal prisons until his release in 1992. After coming home, Marion Barry reconnected with his faith. During that time he married Cora Masters, who helped him maintain his sobriety and to re-launch his political career.
Drug-free and inspired, the erstwhile mayor cast his eye on government again. This time he vied for the Ward Eight council seat and easily won. But not holding the executive office made Barry yearn for his old job. In 1995, he ran for a fourth term and was victorious again. Barry’s last term as mayor was free of personal woes but the city was in a financial quagmire. Seizing the opportunity to reassert control and to put Barry “in his place,” a Republican dominated Congress established the District of Columbia Financial Control Board, which meant the buying of a paper clip had to be approved by this draconian body. Marion served out his term but refused to run again for mayor due to the loss of Home Rule.
“Mayor for Life” Barry regained his Ward Eight seat on the Council in 2002. For those unfamiliar with the demographics of the District of Columbia, Councilman Barry serves a constituency “East of the River.” While there are glimmers of diversity, the electorate east of the Anacostia River remains predominately African American and working class. Barry’s humble beginnings in the South picking cotton as a child endeared him to the residents of Southeast D.C., who were often shut out from the ladders of economic ascension. Marion never forgot the pricks in his fingers from harvesting another man’s crops. The pain became an impetus to excel.
While there have been four women called Mrs. Barry, his third wife Effi (nee–Slaughter) was the one who added elegance to his persona during his rise to political power. When Marion Barry threw his hat into the ring, he was rejected by the “Old Guard,” the well-established local black middle class. The then unpolished upstart from Mississippi was deemed “not one of us.” Ironically, it was the white middle class and black working class who catapulted him from the City Council to the first real boss of the District of Columbia. All of that was made possible by Effi’s her ability smooth the rough edges of a zeitgeist.
Today the once vitriolic, afro-wearing community activist approaches his seventy-ninth birthday. Some would call him an old lion who has lost his mane. But they would be wrong. A panther does not have a mane. Marion Barry's youthful plumage may have gone but the fire still burns with fervor in his belly. On any day during council proceedings one can hear him raising objections when city resources are not being equally allocated to include his voters. And on any day of the week if you happen to be driving down Pennsylvania Avenue south of the river and you see a crowd of people on the sidewalk, don’t be afraid. It’s just “Marion” doing what he has always done – listening and talking to the people he loves, the ones who never turned their backs on him when he had fallen from grace.
Considering how the face of Washington, D.C. is changing, it is doubtful a bronze statue will one day be commemorated in front of the District Building. If you know the full and true story of Marion Shepilov Barry Jr., your memories of him will probably shine brighter and certainly last a lot longer.