Former Washington, DC Mayor Marion Barry was buried today. The first thought that comes to most non-native Washingtonians (like me) is this is the man who was caught on video smoking crack. But, there’s more to the story.
I arrived in DC from Detroit the year Mr. Barry was arrested on drug charges following an FBI sting at a downtown hotel. I probably saw the infamous video of Barry’s arrest a hundred times and wondered to myself. Where have I come?
Of course, Detroit had it’s own controversial black leader, Coleman Young who served as mayor from 1974-1994. Young was irreverent and often profane but he was very smart as a man and a politician and as a black woman, I was proud of Young’s efforts and accomplishments. [Note: Coleman Young’s 1974 invective to muggers and drug pushers to “hit 8 Mile Road” (the northern border of Detroit’s city limits) has been widely misunderstood and misquoted as a message to those who were disappointed in his election, in particular the city’s white population, to leave the city. That is not the case.]
Fast forward back to Washington, DC 1990. I’d moved to the nation’s capital that year filled with awe at the opportunity to work in the world’s most powerful city. The local and national media dumped on Marion Barry hard, never passing on the opportunity to broadcast the video of his undignified arrest and I was swept up in the uninformed reporting and conjecture. I maintained my largely negative opinion of Barry for a half dozen years. What changed my mind was a brief stint working as a communications specialist for a major non-profit organization then headquartered in Anacostia. Anacostia is one of the neighborhoods east of the river for which it is named, in the city’s Ward 8 political district. It is an area connected to nearby Capitol Hill by a bridge over troubled waters of poverty, neglect and political disenfranchisement. At least it was, I learned, before Marion Barry came to town.
Marion Barry arrived in DC in 1965 as an activist after graduating from Fisk University with a Masters degree in chemistry. As a student he gravitated to the civil rights movement and was a participant in the Nashville Student Movement and later became the first Chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). His first organizing efforts in DC were focused on job training for the unemployed, economic development, poverty programs and public education. He became a member of the DC Board of Education and in 1975 was elected as an at-large member of the DC City Council. He would return to the Council in 1993 and again in 2005 for a total of 15 years, most of those years representing Ward 8. In 1979, when Barry began his first term as mayor, he tackled youth unemployment and focused on solidifying the city’s finances. By most accounts, Barry’s first term was productive. However, the second and third terms of the Barry administration were rife with cronyism, contract irregularities, chaotic financial oversight, crime, and a crack epidemic of which, the mayor became its most noted victim.
On a recent NPR program discussing Barry’s legacy, one reporter noted that we should take the full measure of the man. So, in thinking about Barry today I take into account his work in the late 50’s as president of his college’s chapter of the NAACP; his work in the 60’s in the burgeoning civil rights movement; his focus in the late 60’s on job training, home rule and food equity issues for DC’s poorest populations and his first year’s in DC’s political structure in the 70’s and early 80’s where his strong leadership and organizing skills were in full display.
I also give credit to Marion Barry for something else. As we all witness a week of outrage and demonstrations against what can only be called a trend of over extreme and unnecessarily lethal police responses during encounters with black citizens, I am reminded that for Marion Barry, black lives really did matter. He made no apologies for his affinity to and unreserved support of the District of Columbia’s black residents. The impoverished, the disconnected, the underprivileged, the young, the elderly, the geographically dislocated from the centers of Washington, DC’s power. Those were his people. He was a mastermind at galvanizing their affection and, on election days, at leveraging that affection into votes at the polls.
I never met Marion Barry. But I’ve met many of the people who knew and loved him. A few of those people were disappointed in his imperfections but they always knew they mattered to him. Thank you, Mr. Barry, for all you were able to do on behalf of those who were underserved. Rest in Peace.
I highly recommend the 2009 documentary “The Nine Lives of Marion Barry” produced by Dana Flor and Toby Oppenheimer.