By: K. Levek
It was a packed room inside of Old Congress Heights School, where “Mayor for Life” and Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry held his book signing for his autobiographical book, ‘Mayor for Life: The Incredible Story of Marion Barry, Jr.’ The book signing was sponsored by the Ward-8 based Washington Informer, who is celebrating 50 years in the newspaper industry. The paper’ publisher and editor, Denise Rolark Barnes moderated the conversation with Barry as he spoke about his life and career.
The event, which lasted nearly three hours, showcased various billboards throughout the room with pictures of Barry throughout his career and a video presentation was also presented at the beginning of the program. The publisher of Barry’s book, Zane, a famed author best known for her book, Addicted, was at the book signing along with the black-owned Strebor Books, who was the publishing house. New York Times best selling author Omar Tyree helped Barry co-write and contribute to the book.
The four-term mayor of Washington, DC, Barry spoke about his highs and lows in political life along with his humble upbringing in Mississippi. When asked by Rolark how he rose from a poor background to become a great academic and politician, Barry said he got his zeal for education at a young age. He recalled how he was valedictorian of his elementary school, which a 1-room schoolhouse during segregation. After graduating from Lemonye Owen College in Memphis, TN he went on to graduate school and stopped credits short of obtaining his PhD in Chemistry.
A dedicated public servant Barry came to Washington after joining the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Council (SNCC) while at Fisk University in Nashville, eventually being elected the first chairman of the organization. He said James Ford recruited him to come to D.C. and he was originally tasked with coming to help raise money for the organization and lobby Congress for help, but soon became involved in the city’s bus boycott, a symbol of the Civil Rights Movement.
During the book signing he said his motto has always been “always fighting for the people.” His elected career in Washington, DC, has spanned from 1971 to the present, where he is the current Ward 8 Councilmember.
He also spoke about the people who have been dear friends to him along his journey, particularly his estranged wife Cora Masters Barry. During the event he said, “She’s a strong black woman” and spoke about how he would not have made it without her, saying, “you have been my rock.” While he acknowledged that they are happily separated he did say that she has been one of his best friends for over 50 years, to which she responded from the crowd ‘I love you too.’
Barry acknowledged another friend in the audience, Phinis Jones, who developed and owns Old Congress Heights School, where the event was held. He said he was happy to host his book signing in a building that was developed by a Black developer. Jones said that he was honored that Barry held the event there because it “showcased Black talent in the ward.” Barry further went on to thank Industrial Bank for being a solid Black-owned financial institution that was willing to help black businesses when he was mayor.
During the event Rolark asked if there were members of the Barry administration present to stand and be acknowledged. As many rose out of their seats Barry reflected that he was thankful for their attendance and acknowledged that while mayor he had many women who were heads of various agencies and did so during a time when women were not being put in charge. Rolark also asked for summer job recipients to stand, which was one of Barry’s flagship programs, which was instituted under his leadership. The summer youth program allowed many District residents to gain their first entre into federal and local government.
As Rolark continued to probe Barry for questions about his book, he urged her along with the audience to “buy it” so you can get a first hand account of his life’s story.