With crime on the rise in cities across America, along with rising unemployment, housing insecurity, and homelessness, it is high time to revisit the legacy of former Washington, D.C., Mayor Marion Barry. For readers who only know Barry’s name because of comedian Chris Rock’s now infamous monologue about the late mayor and his crack addiction, the suggestion that he deserves to be remembered as more than a punch line might seem surprising. Barry’s drug use was captured on camera after the federal government conducted a costly and time-consuming sting operation. What many may not know or remember are Barry’s efforts promoting youth employment, and his steadfast belief that Black Americans should be able to find work, live, and self-govern in the District of Columbia. After the first (of four) mayoral electoral wins in 1979, Barry became a national symbol for urban centers across the nation.
Barry had his fair share of troubles and controversies, especially during the latter stage of his political tenure. Many of those who remember Barry at all would rather focus on his addictions, corruption, his flip-flop on marriage equity, and his remarks pertaining to Asian American businesses, which he called “dirty shops.” However, Barry’s commitment to Black people and urban centers should not be overshadowed by actions that brought disgrace upon the mayor himself as well as on the city of Washington, D.C. Barry was a flawed human whose dedication to the civil rights movement and uplift of Black Americans is at the bare minimum worthy of remembrance, discussion, and debate.
It should come as no surprise, however, that the moment Washingtonians elected Barry as their second Black mayor—long before there was any hint of scandal—the federal government immediately removed many of his executive powers and began cutting federal funding to the district. The relationship between Washington, D.C., and Congress has always been contentious, even before the city became majority-Black in 1957. As a former SNCC leader, one of the architects of the Free D.C. movement in 1965, and a leader in various groups campaigning for increased self-rule in the district, Barry had ambitious plans, but found himself severely limited in what he could actually do for D.C. residents once he became mayor.
Although residents of the district pay federal taxes, they do not have representation in the Senate; nor do they have a voting member of the House of Representatives. (Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton, the district’s delegate, is entitled to sit in the House of Representatives and participate in committee votes, and can offer amendments in the Committee of the Whole, but she isn’t allowed to take part in legislative floor votes.) As many D.C. residents will tell you, they suffer from a severe case of taxation without adequate representation.
Yet, even within those very real constraints, Barry was determined to lead his city in ways that current urban mayors should follow. As cities across the country experience budget constraints on the state and federal level and grapple with devastatingly high levels of unemployment and increases in crime, Barry’s vision of roughly 40 years ago should serve as a blueprint and a beacon for current mayors.
During his tenure as mayor, especially during his first term, Barry’s programs helped provide summer jobs for tens of thousands of D.C. teenagers, home-buying assistance for working-class residents, and food for senior citizens. Barry also placed Black Americans in thousands of middle- and upper-level management positions in his city administration that in previous generations had been reserved for whites. Because of his efforts, these government jobs enabled an entire generation of Black Americans to move more solidly into the middle class.
If I were to advise mayors Eric Adams of New York, Lori Lightfoot of Chicago, Brandon Scott of Baltimore, Andre Dickens of Atlanta—or any mayor for that matter—I would implore them to also emulate Barry’s efforts to simultaneously reduce crime, retain Black residents in their cities in the face of gentrification, and give all residents an opportunity to live and work with dignity. Comedian Dave Chapelle, actor Jeffrey Wright, and countless others have credited Barry’s youth jobs program as a source of income and dignity in the district. Barry fundamentally believed that providing work would decrease crime, decrease rates of teen pregnancy, and combat the many ills that plague cities when young people do not have a place to go or their own money in their pockets. Barry also believed that when people have purpose, they lead purposeful lives.
Barry was determined to curb the unemployment, violence, and poverty that threatened to overwhelm the district following the 1968 riots. His summer youth jobs program was established in 1979 as a locally funded initiative that provided young people in the District with six weeks of summer work experience through subsidized placements in the private and public sectors. The summer program partnered with hundreds of D.C. employers who provided training and mentorship to D.C.’s youth in order to help them develop the positive work habits and job skills necessary to secure future employment. Roughly 43 years later, the Mayor Marion S. Barry Summer Youth Employment Program still provides 14,000 Washington, D.C., youth with gainful employment and opportunity to explore future career paths. That approach should be replicated robustly in cities across the country. Instead of politicians’ promising to increase police numbers or expand local jails, I would suggest directing those funds toward youth employment to deter young people from the temptations of illicit activity.
As mayor, Barry also made sure Black residents were able to continue to live in D.C. through the home-buying assistance program known as the Bates Street Project. In recent years, rapid gentrification has hit cities with once-significant Black populations hard. In recent years, Baltimore, New York, New Orleans, and Washington have been steadily losing their Black populations, Black home-owning neighborhoods, and Black history. Barry was keenly aware that the key to a robust Black population in the district was Black home ownership free of the whims of predatory landlords and rapidly rising rents. Barry initiated a joint government/private program to rehabilitate 733 of the estimated 4,500 vacant, boarded-up housing units in the city. The program included rental housing, public housing, condominiums, cooperatives, and 200 new single-family homes. The program even helped lower-income families borrow up to $11,000 in down payment funds. Hopefully, more cities will assist working- and middle-class residents to remain despite the increasing gentrification efforts of developers and universities alike.
Lastly, as mayor, Barry started a program of free food distribution for those in economically devastated neighborhoods. By convincing a supermarket chain to donate food and deliver it to city housing projects, Barry acknowledged the need for corporations to contribute to the health and well-being to some of the city’s most vulnerable populations. The wealth currently in major cities is often calcified at the highest levels and does not trickle down to its neediest residents. Far too many companies and corporations do not pay their fair share—or anything close to it—to maintain the economic vitality of the urban centers in which they reside and from which they profit.
The problems facing the latest crop of Black mayors are gigantic and sometimes grave. However, as Barry, who died in 2014, once said, “Don’t get the impression it’s not going to be tough, but I just don’t want to give you the impression that it’s impossible.”
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Marion Barry was the first Black mayor of Washington, D.C. He was the second; Walter Washington was the first.