Marion Barry was mayor of Washington, DC, for four terms, three consecutive and one after he got out of prison where he was sent for smoking crack cocaine while federal agents video taped the event in a hotel room set up specifically for that purpose. He was 78 years old, but people who saw him up close in recent years said he looked like a cadaver in a fine, well cut suit, always well dressed, well presented, with a good suit and a natty tie, but standing on death’s door nonetheless. He had a variety of illnesses in his last decade or more, many of them related to heavy drinking and drug use over the years.
The long story of Marion Barry and the city of Washington, DC, (remember, it is a city, a real place, quite apart from those big government buildings seen in television news reports daily) is a strange one of triumph and tragedy. Barry rose from being an early civil rights advocate (he was the first national chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) and community activist to be mayor of a city that is broken, a city that has only half the powers normally associated with a city government and operates with the federal apparatus looking down on it and, through Congress, with the ability to cancel out almost anything the city government decides to do. It’s a mess.
Leaving aside Marion Barry for the moment, the mess of the city government was created long ago when those writing America’s constitution were meeting in Philadelphia. Fearing that a riot was about to break out and land on top of them, the founders asked the governor of Pennsylvania to call out the guard. He refused. They vowed then and there that the federal government had to be in a special “district”, something apart from the states, so that no mere governor could ignore its needs in a time of peril. This strange arrangement meant that voters in DC were denied the right to even vote on who would become president until the 1960s and they didn’t get “home rule”, an actual elected mayor and city council, until 1973. (Nixon signed the bill and supported the idea.)
There’s more: for decades, DC was a majority black city presided over by white, southern congressmen who were not too pleased with anything that went on in the city. They ruled it like their own private fiefdom and city residents marched to the drums of crusty old House members from states like Mississippi. It was a formula set up for resentment of the highest order. Thousands of blacks had fled the southern states to get away from racism and to pursue better job opportunities in government and elsewhere only to find themselves ruled over by white southerners, many of whom were racists to the core.
Enter Marion Barry. Young, wearing African style clothing and organizing various movements around the city, Barry moved onto a neighborhood board, then the school board, the city council and finally ran for mayor against a symbol of the old ways: Walter Washington, the city’s first elected mayor who had earlier been appointed to the position by Lyndon Johnson when he was president.
Barry came roaring into office, displacing the old ways and hiring everyone in the downtrodden old neighborhoods he had earlier helped organize. Jobs were available for just about anyone who wanted one, competent or not. Thousands of summer jobs were made available to kids in need of money and something to do between the school years. The DC government was bloated with people in jobs many of them couldn’t actually do, but for those in the poorer neighborhoods, the chance at steady employment was highly welcomed. For this and other reasons, Barry became a hero to many. He was a man who not only cared about the excluded and the unwanted, he turned the government into a kind of piggy bank to help them.
One of the strangest events in a lifetime filled with the unusual took place in 1977 when Barry was a member of the DC City Council. As a sect of Muslims took over several buildings and tried to take over city hall, Barry was shot and almost killed, the bullet just missing his heart. Two people were killed in a siege that, in other locations, lasted more than a week and drew international attention.
In a sense, Barry became the first true mayor of DC because the first elected mayor, Walter Washington, was really a presidential appointee who ran for the office when it was opened to citizen voting. He was a holdover from the time when the city was completely a ward of the federal government. As such, Barry will always hold a special place in the cityâ€s history, the man who helped the march toward democracy in the capital of a democratic nation, a march that is not yet complete.
The whole story of what transpired during those years will be covered elsewhere, but Barry and the city’s life took a sharp, bad turn when he was arrested in 1990. Prosecutors said they could not ignore Barry’s conduct, running all over the city taking illegal drugs and drinking heavily to boot. To many in the black community, it appeared to be a conspiracy to take down any black man who might rise to power and prominence. When the video tape from the arrest was shown dozens of times on local and national television, Barry became a laughingstock to the nation. To the African-American community, and in to others, too, here was a black man being humiliated on television by the white power structure that had resisted black participation for many decades, from the start of the American nation, in fact.
Things got worse from there. After he served one more term as mayor following prison, his life seemed to be in a more or less constant downhill spiral. Frequent problems with law enforcement. Near poverty that saw Barry calling on friends and acquaintances to borrow money. Repeated hospitalizations. Reelection to the city council in 2004. Charges of misusing funds. A former wife put in jail, then given a job when she got out. For the last ten to twenty years, it has been a sad soap opera as the city watched its former mayor, once a proud accomplished man who pursued a doctorate in chemistry before diving into the civil rights movement, decline to, face it, the point of embarrassment. He was the once proud young man who grew to power and, when hit hard by the vicissitudes of life, refused to go away.
In the normal course, people who are former mayors who also have academic credentials spend the last 20 or so years of their life teaching or writing, passing along what they learned or working quietly for some foundation or another. Barry was discredited by his arrest for cocaine and couldn’t have pursued that line if he wanted it. Instead, he settled for proving to the people of DC that his love for them and the city was real and, in the process, he presented a sad story of deterioration and decline, a man humbled beyond words by his own mistakes and excesses who refused to go quietly, in fact, who refused to go at all until the last moment when he died Saturday night.
Doug Terry, 11.23.14