A bevy of right-wing pundits, radio jocks and late-night comics will mock the passing of four-time DC mayor Marion Barry. In life and death, his enemies will take their shots without trying to understand why people—particularly the marginalized and criminalized—mourn his passing. Barry’s talent—and his sin in the eyes of the powerful—was the ability to organize a true urban political machine comprised of black residents in the old style of the white ethnic political bosses. Like the bosses of yesteryear, he gave and he took. He had vices both political and personal and he knew how to count votes. But Barry also understood social movements. He came out of the black freedom struggle in the 1960s where racists flicked lit cigarettes into his face. Barry always knew how to wear his scars like medals.
As the misinformation—and some lionization—flies, here are fourteen facts about Marion Barry to help decode the demonization, and a couple of memories about times our paths crossed.
1. Barry quit his graduate studies in chemistry at Fisk University to become an organizer in the civil rights movement—most famously with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). He was one of the more conservative members of SNCC where he fought alongside—and fought with—revolutionaries like Stokely Carmichael. It was reform vs. revolution amidst the rapid real time of a black freedom struggle exponentially expanding.
2. After moving to Washington, DC, in the mid-1960s, Barry organized a citywide boycott in response to bus fare hikes and against police brutality. Barry also organized hundreds of working class and poor black men into an organization called Pride, which helped people get jobs as well as organizing them as a voting bloc.
3. It has been commonly stated that in the years before home rule, Congress treated DC like a plantation. Bigoted Dixiecrat John McMillan of South Carolina blocked every move for home rule and routinely screwed over DC residents. When President Johnson appointee Walter Washington became the city’s first local mayor, McMillan sent a truckload of watermelons to Washington’s office.
4. At a decisive moment, Barry led the famous “Free DC Movement” for home rule, an extensive campaign that drew upon the strength of the civil rights movement. By the early 1970s, DC won an elected school board, nonvoting congressional representative, mayor and city council, but Congress still retained control over the city.
5. Marion Barry was one of just a handful of black mayors nationally when he first took office—inaugurated by Thurgood Marshall—in January 1979. He was re-elected three times, by a 67 percent margin, 30 percent margin and 15 percent margin in 1982, 1986 and 1994.
6. As mayor, Barry won the loyalty of tens of thousands of DC residents by creating jobs—most famously through his summer youth employment program (SYEP) which still exists today. He spent government money to create jobs that fueled the growth of the black middle class. DC was one of a few places in the United States that could claim improved economic status for African-Americans during the early Reagan years.