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In New Memoir, Marion Barry Defends Legacy While Calling Out Foes

Marion Barry: former mayor, current D.C. Council member, published author.
WAMU/Jared Angle
Marion Barry: former mayor, current D.C. Council member, published author.

In a new autobiography set to be published tomorrow, former four-term mayor and D.C. Council member Marion Barry admits of personal failings with alcohol, women and drugs while combatively insisting that his notorious 1990 arrest at the Vista Hotel was orchestrated by the federal government after he helped increase opportunities for low- and middle-income black residents.

The 324-page book, Mayor for Life: The Incredible Story of Marion Barry, Jr., follows him from his start as the son of a Mississippi sharecropper to graduate student in chemistry in Tennessee and civil rights activist in the South to organizer and political leader in Washington.

In tackling the arrest — which landed him in prison for six months — Barry uses it both as evidence that not enough people appreciate the entirety of his record and proof that his opponents would do anything to bring him down.

"When you start giving black people real money, opportunities and a real sense of pride in themselves that was taken away from us, that's when outside people get mad," he writes. "That's what the Vista Hotel was all about... The drugs, the alcohol and women; they don't really mind about all that. They care, of course, but they get extra sensitive when you start hitting them in the pocket."

That message carries through the book, which was co-written by Charlotte-based author Omar Tyree. Barry writes of popular programs to give summer jobs to thousands of D.C. youth — a program that continues to this day — and grant more government contracts to minority businesses, while calling out entrenched opponents who sought to derail him, whether wealthier white residents ("Some whites only seemed to care about the three T's: taxes, trash and trees"), tradition-minded middle-class blacks, and Republicans.

He attacks the media ("Everyone above the line at The Washington Post... had benefited from covering my life over the years as the mayor of Washington, and apparently, they [are] still milking the cow") and the U.S. attorneys he says were out to bring him down because of his successes ("I continued doing great things for the Washington community, but the problem was: I was too much.").

Barry also dismisses allegations of government corruption ("When you're in office with 40,000 members on your workforce, any department can have some corruption in it, very easily") while calling other accusations against him "character assassination."

He doesn't shy away from congratulating himself; "I continued to do an outstanding job against so many difficult odds," he writes in a brief chapter on the drug wars that ravaged the city in the 1980s and 90s. On the 1987 snow storm that paralyzed D.C. while he was in California attending the Super Bowl, Barry writes that no one could have predicted the severity of the storm while saying that his constituents wanted him to return to handle the snow removal: "The people of the city were clamoring for me to return."

Barry does admit that he often drank too much, dabbled in drugs and was unfaithful to his wife, Effi Barry. He recalls a party he attended at a house owned by a friend, where he was first offered cocaine and had sex with the woman who offered him the drug, writing that the prospect of sex was more of a draw than the cocaine. "I would never have agreed to take cocaine with her if I didn't want to try it for the sex," he writes. "It was my bad judgement, and I blame no one but myself. It was a mix of power, attraction, alcohol, sex, and drugs."

That same attraction is part of what led to the 1990 arrest at the Vista Hotel, he recalls. "I had no interest in the drugs, but I figured Rasheeda [Moore] would have some good sex with me if I agreed to do [crack] with her."

Barry's book largely turns on that event. While he insists that he doesn't want to be known only for the arrest ("I don't want my life and legacy to be all about what happened to me at the Vista Hotel"), he uses it as the main case that Republican U.S. attorneys were seeking a means to unseat him.

"The FBI had no cut cards," he writes. "So they brought in Rasheeda back to D.C. to set me up." On the video of Barry allegedly smoking crack, he writes: "The U.S. government sent the video everywhere, to every embassy and every country to make an example of me. It was definitely race-related."

Towards the end of the book, Barry returns to a theme common to many personal memoirs: He wants his story to be told in the way that he'd like to be remembered. "We all have our personal struggles, embarrassments and things that we may not be proud of, but on every man's or woman's obituary, it should read about all of the things that they were able to give or do for others, and I did and gave a lot," he writes. (During a recent appearance on The Kojo Nnamdi Show, Barry said other journalists telling his story were exploiting him.)

But he also tries to establish a connection between what he says he advocated for and what remains to be done. "Economics is the new silver rights," he writes. "I guess you're asking what silver rights are? Silver rights is the unspoken, modern-day civil rights movement involving financial literacy."

Barry's book will be out on Tuesday, June 17.

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