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.
7. Yet for many black residents, dire poverty and underemployment persisted. Crack cocaine ravaged DC, but any efforts by Barry or any politician to expand drug treatment were hamstrung by a congressional ban on the commuter tax, which would have enhanced the District’s ability to tackle dire rates of poverty and underemployment. But, as in cities across the country, most of the economic growth flowed toward white developers and property owners.
8. The moment when Barry made national news after his videotaped 1990 arrest for using crack cocaine was tragic on many levels. First and foremost, it became a propaganda bonanza for President George H.W. Bush’s devastating war on drugs. The fact that it certainly looked like entrapment did not spare Barry, and DC began its journey toward losing political power and becoming a neoliberal laboratory for Congress.
9. The crusade against Barry that resulted in his infamous arrest, conviction and sentencing was led by US Attorney Joseph diGenova. DiGenova had been appointed by President Ronald Reagan. Interestingly, diGenova went on to help prosecute Teamsters union president and UPS national strike leader Ron Carey.
10. After Barry was re-elected mayor in 1994—following his sentence—the entire country unleashed a wave of thinly veiled racist vitriol directed at black DC voters. No one asked why tens of thousands of people—many affected by a war on drugs that imprisoned a generation of young black men, would forgive and support his leadership again.
11. In 1995, to punish DC voters for re-electing Barry, the Gingrich Congress stripped DC of home rule again—this time by stripping Barry of most of his mayoral powers and transferring them to an undemocratic, federally appointed institution known as the “Control Board.” The Control Board deserved the contempt it received at the hands of residents and Barry himself, but it came into being via federal law signed by Democratic President Bill Clinton and shepherded by Congressperson Eleanor Holmes Norton.
12. By the time Marion Barry made his improbable return to the mayor’s office in 1994, the Democratic Party had moved to the right, and Barry’s politics drifted along with them. There was no old-style vote counting and deal making for Barry to make in a city run by a Control Board. It was mass social movement or concede. Needless to say, there were no mass social movements. I will never forget my friend the activist Angela C. Davis, saying to Barry in packed room, to serious applause, “We stand with the Barry of 1968, not the one of 1998.”
13. Marion Barry appeared at LGBT Pride events as far back as the early 1980s in Washington, DC—and won the loyalty of many gay residents years ahead of most other politicians. Tragically, he betrayed his own legacy by opposing marriage equality in 2009. The reasons for this are much debated. Fortunately his opposition did not stop it from becoming law and it passed 11-2.
14. Barry was a politician like any other—and committed the same sins that others did—but paid a much higher price.
The above constitute some reasons why people are mourning. But what made Marion Barry unique is that he was present. In a world where politicians—especially in this town—seem to operate in a bubble of bodyguards, Marion Barry was accessible on a street level. Everyone who has lived in DC—not Washington, but DC—has a Marion Barry story. I have two.
In 1997, I was getting my teaching provisional certification at the University of the District of Columbia and the city wanted to shut down the school. Barry was mayor, but this is when that lovely unelected Control Board was in charge of city finances, and trying to claim the real estate upon which UDC stood. As the closure was starting to commence, several hundred of us staged a sit-in to keep our school open. We had a simple slogan: “Control This.” It was becoming a high-profile media embarrassment for the hated Control Board. They sent in Mayor Barry and gave him instructions: draw on your past experience as a protest rabble-rouser, and tell the students to go home. We were silent when he walked into the room. Barry looked at us and said, “Shit, you’ve already learned most important lesson a student in this world can learn.” He then raised his fist and said, “The squeaky wheel gets the damn grease.” We erupted in cheers. And then he just walked out. UDC is still open for students.
The second story took place in 2010. I was emceeing a remembrance of the late, great people’s historian Howard Zinn. Speakers such as Marian Wright Edelman, Amy Goodman, Ralph Nader and many others were there to pay tribute, and in between every speaker, I would rush up on stage from my seat in the front row of the packed house and introduce the next one. At one point, I scurried up to introduce spoken-word artist Damian Smith’s dramatic reading of a speech by Muhammad Ali. When I attempted to return to my seat, Marion Barry was just sitting there. The mayor took my seat. “Hello, Mayor Barry,” I said to the person who had not held that office in a dozen years. “Hello, young brother,” he said. “Nice emceeing up there.” I did not ask him to move. Instead I said, “This is the perfect place for you to sit, Mayor.” “It’s the place to be,” he responded.
I looked at Damian who had just finished up and he said to me, “I guess you realized that Marion Barry can sit wherever he damn well pleases.” Let the hate on Barry fly in the days to come. But when Marion Barry entered a room, wherever he was, it immediately became “the place to be.”
This article could not have been written without the help of DC Public Schools Washington DC History teacher Michele Bollinger.