Marion S. Barry: The Man, The Life, The Legacy

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By K. Levek
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Marion S. Barry, Jr. was best known as “Mayor for Life” in Washington, D.C. He was the longest serving mayor in the District, serving a total of 16 years during his four terms. He also served 16 years as a City Councilmember; the majority of those years was representing Ward 8. Barry died Nov. 23 at age 78. Beyond his legacy as mayor, he leaves a legacy as the most famous, the most beloved and the most divisive local leader in four decades of District of Columbia self-rule.

During his four-day funeral, local and national political leaders, prominent clergy members and national activists came to pay their last respect to Barry. More than two dozen people spoke at the 4 ½-hour service, which was held at the Washington Convention Center. His funeral turned out more than 7,000 people. The private burial took place at the prominent Congressional Cemetery, where other congressional leaders are buried.

Many friends, activists, business leaders and family members characterized Barry as “a man of the people.” He was credited with expanding economic opportunity for the city’s black majority, and helping to revitalize downtown Washington. He also had well-documented personal struggles, culminating in a 1990 arrest for smoking crack cocaine. He served six months in prison, but was elected as the Ward 8 Councilmember andn later made a remarkable comeback to a fourth term as mayor.

Barry’s only child, 34-year-old Christopher, described him as a sometimes-absent father, a gifted politician and a teacher. He said, “He sees a barren strip of land, he tills the soil, he chases the snakes away,” he said. “He planted seeds in people’s lives. He planted hope in people who didn’t have hope. They say D.C. will never be the same because Marion Barry’s gone,” he continued. “They’re right, because now there’s thousands of — millions of Marion Barry’s out there. He’ll never die.”

Barry planned his funeral events from his sickbed, earlier this year when he was hospitalized, with help from his wife, Cora Masters Barry. At the public funeral on Saturday Cora said, “He was not fake. Everything he did big, he did little. He was a person who took great pride in helping people get up.” She said, “I stopped letting him go to the gas station because he would spend all of his money — not on gas, but the people.”

Barry came from humble beginnings. He was born to sharecroppers and domestic workers in Itta Bena, Mississippi. Growing up, he worked hard at a variety of jobs. He had two newspaper routes and sold a third newspaper on street corners. He waited tables, bagged groceries and inspected soda bottles. He also went to choir practice.

In school, he was a good student. He was also an Eagle Scout. At the age of 8, he moved to Memphis, TN with his mother and completed his early childhood education. He then enrolled in Lemoyne-Owen College in Memphis and became president of the NAACP Youth Council, delivering an opening speech prior to an address by the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In the fall of 1960 after graduating with a Master of Science degree in Chemistry from Fisk University, Barry enrolled at the University of Kansas. He was a dissertation shy of receiving his doctorate degree when we left to come to Washington, DC to join the civil rights movement.

He came to Washington, DC in 1965 and joined the Student Nonviolent Coordination Committee (SNCC) and in short time became the first chair of the organization. In the turbulence of the 1960s, Barry had made his mark in the national capital: a young civil rights activist, streetwise and confrontational, with an “in your face” style that won the hearts and minds of thousands in the most depressed and impoverished of Washington’s black neighborhoods.

In January 1966, he led a one-day bus “mancott” to protest a fare increase requested by D.C. Transit. He organized a “Free D.C. Movement” to press for home rule. He called D.C. police “an occupation army.” In 1969, he tore up a parking ticket, struck the officer who had placed it on his windshield and was charged with assault. The case ended with a hung jury.

He became active in a number of other local and national movements before running for his first elected office in 1972 as the President of the D.C. School Board. In 1974 he won a citywide At-Large seat on the City Council under Home Rule. He then married Effie Slaughter, Christopher’s mother and launched his first mayoral campaign. An unexpected win, he rose to great prominence as a black mayor in a major city, which catapulted his name.

When Barry took office, the District’s finances were so mismanaged that the city didn’t even know how much money it had in the bank. He instituted budgetary and fiscal accounting procedures and was able to balance the city’s budget for the first time in its history.
The one-time leader of the city’s old Board of Education, Barry was, at one time, revered nationally as a symbol of African-American political leadership and beloved for his prowess at local politics. But his professional accomplishments were often overshadowed by bad behavior in his personal life that made for startling headlines.

Ward 8 has held him in highest esteem, voting him in with overwhelming numbers each election. Barry said in an interview, “The reason I survive is because I have an abiding faith in God.” He was close to those who loved and cared for him. His personal friend and pastor Willie Wilson of Union Temple Baptist Church, in Ward 8, said, “Barry was a political king.”

During his public funeral, which Jesse Jackson, founder of Rainbow PUSH Coalition, eulogized, the Honorable Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam spoke and said, “Indeed, the legacy has begun. I’m honored beyond words to be here today to celebrate the life of our brother, our champion, our mayor, but not just a local figure but a man who’s work was both national and international.”

Farrakhan went on to say, “I was here in Washington when my brother went through his great trial and a reporter from one of the Washington newspapers came to me with a question, but before she asked her question she was building me up as some moral giant. Somebody who was married and had a good life, and didn’t use drugs. And what do you think, she said, of a man who broke his marital vows and used drugs? And, I said ‘who are you talking about? John Fitzgerald Kennedy?’ Now that ended the press conference.
“It is not right or moral to speak of the dead in an unkind way. I only raised that for those who like to talk about our deficiencies while they hide the wickedness of their own leaders that have been over us and over the world. Nobody passes this life without committing sin.”

Forgiven, redeemed and loved in his passing, Marion S. Barry is considered one of the greatest politicians to ever grace Washington, D.C. “A life ends, a legacy begins” was the theme of his funeral events. He left his legacy and D.C. has seen better days because of it.

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