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Marion Barry, Beloved And Polarizing Legend Of D.C. Politics, Dies At 78

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District of Columbia Mayor Marion Barry waves a fist as he arrives at U.S. District Court in Washington on Wednesday, June 28, 1990 for his trial on drug and perjury charges.
(AP Photo/Dennis Cook)
District of Columbia Mayor Marion Barry waves a fist as he arrives at U.S. District Court in Washington on Wednesday, June 28, 1990 for his trial on drug and perjury charges.

Former D.C. Mayor Marion Barry — widely known as the city's "mayor for life" — died early on Sunday morning. He was 78.

Barry, who had suffered from various health problems over the years, was released Saturday from Howard University Hospital after a brief stay, but was taken to the United Medical Center at 12:15 a.m. after having collapsed in front of his home in Southeast D.C.

He was pronounced dead at 1:46 a.m. The D.C. Medical Examiner ruled the cause of death hypertensive cardiovascular disease.

From the Delta to D.C.

Born into poverty in the Mississippi Delta in 1936, Barry spent most of his youth in Memphis, deep in the racist and segregated South.

"Even the zoo was segregated. I’m serious. We only could go on Thursdays. That’s how oppressive things were. Just to pass by and see a white-only water fountain and a colored water fountain. I once asked my mother, 'What’s the difference between colored water and white water?' She said, 'I don’t know except we can’t drink that white water,'" he recalled in a 1985 interview.

Trained to be a chemist, Barry got swept up in the civil rights movement during college. In 1960, he was finishing up his master’s degree, when he was elected the first chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC.

"We were sort of the shock troops of the civil rights movement," says Frank Smith, another of the group’s founding members. He worked with Barry, doing the dangerous work of registering black voters in the South. Barry came to Washington in 1965, to start a local SNCC office; Smith followed a few years later.

"We’re trying to get all these people registered to vote, in Mississippi and Alabama. You get to Washington D.C., and find out, these people don’t have the right to vote," says Smith.

The majority-black city couldn’t elect its own mayor or Council, and had no voice in Congress. The unofficial “mayor of Washington” was the congressman who ran the House Committee on the District of Columbia.

"He was a redneck, racist white man from South Carolina," says Smith.

Barry thrived in the Washington, D.C. of the 1960s. He was at home with the young and disenfranchised, and he organized these “street dudes” and got them involved in city politics. "The issue is whether people outside can come in. The issue is whether people outside can come in," he said at the time.

Barry organized a boycott of the city's private bus lines in 1966, saying a planned fare increase would hit the city's poor the hardest. An estimated 75,000 people participated in the boycott. That same year, Barry helped found the Free D.C. movement, which would fight fight D.C. self-governance. In 1971, he made his first move towards elected office, winning a seat on the Board of Education.

From activist to politician

When D.C. gained Home Rule in 1973 and held its first elections in a century in 1974, Barry won an at-large seat on the new D.C. Council. It was there that he started building a political career that would span decades; Barry served in office for 34 of the city's 40-year experiment with home rule.

"Barry created an environment where blacks could get ahead," says Isaac Fulwood, a police officer who got to know Barry during his early years on the Council. He was also there during one of defining moments of Barry's life.

On March 9, 1977, Barry walked into the District building — and into the path of Hanafi Muslims who had stormed the offices. "I don’t know whether I saved his life. I was in the District building when the call came out," recalls Fulwood. "And then we were told that they thought somebody was injured and in the city council chambers."

Fulwood found Barry bleeding from the chest — he’d been shot just above the heart. Barry would remember Fulwood in coming years. "The man made me chief of police. He gave me an opportunity that I would not have had," says Fulwood.

In 1978, Barry ran for mayor, pulling off a surprise win, an outsider against two establishment candidates. Promising to remain the activist he was before becoming a politician, he pledged to take the boards off vacant houses in the city, to house the poor and to employ tens of thousands of young people in summer jobs.

"We've also pledged ourselves to be the most efficient and effective government in the world," he said shortly after being elected.

Barry won that first mayoral race with a broad coalition of support — he won four of the city’s eight wards, including its whitest and wealthiest, Ward 3. The editorial board of The Washington Post strongly endorsed Barry, writing: “What Mr. Barry seems to value, and to be offering… is precisely what we think the people of this city need, and ought to be looking for.”

Longtime D.C. journalist Harry Jaffe, who coauthored a book about Barry, says that he possessed the ability to appeal to voters across the city.

"Marion Barry could connect with almost anybody," he says. "There was that bright and shining moment in 1978 when Marion was elected, it was a sense that the city would be united along racial lines."

Barry’s administration modernized the District government, and he boosted the city’s black middle class.

"Washington D.C. was a leading city in this country in getting black people into jobs. D.C. was a flagship city for this. Barry was a leader among those mayors," says Smith, who served on the Council while Barry was mayor.

"Well, people say, yeah, yeah, and you bankrupted the city. Sure, but we built the biggest black middle class in the country. We used the city government the way minorities have used the public sector throughout," he says.

This file frame from a black-and-white FBI videotape shows Washington Mayor Marion Barry allegedly lighting a crack cocaine pipe in a Washington hotel room in January 18, 1990 as Rasheeda Moore stands behind him. (AP Photo/Barry Thumma, File)

A great fall

But the city was in for tough times. In 1989, there were 434 murders in the city — hitting a new record high for the second year in a row. The violence was spurred by the crack cocaine trade, and there were rumors the mayor himself was a user.

"Well let me just say that I have stated over and over that under no circumstances will I be around people who use drugs. I don’t need to use drugs, have not done so," insisted Barry at the time, attempting to bat away rumors swirling around him.

In 1990, Barry was arrested after the FBI raided a downtown hotel room where he had been videotaped smoking crack cocaine. It was a moment Fulwood remembers.

"You think about it. You think about the guy whose life was a purposeful life. How did he go wrong? Here’s a guy who fought and came face to face with death, and yet he makes this foolish move and gets himself locked up for crack cocaine," he says.

"There was great disappointment, when we saw the surveillance video and we learned that the mayor is using drugs and involved in this affair," says Michelle Bernard, runs the Bernard Center for Women, Politics and Public Policy. She worked closely with Barry in the 1990s. "That’s been very difficult for the African American community, because we need our heroes to be super-heroes."

Even Barry admitted that he had failed to be the super-hero he was expected to be.

"How I wish I could trade this hour. I’ve had to realize that God made Marion Barry the same as he made other people. A flesh and blood creation who rises and falls just like any other human being," he said.

Barry was charged with fourteen counts, but was convicted on just one count of cocaine possession. He served six months in a federal prison.

His arrest touched on the simmering racial tension that had long been evident in the city. "It was a time, in all of my years in Washington, when race relations were very, very tense," says Jaffe. "These were very difficult times. It was black against white."

Looking back on that period of his life, Barry insisted in his recently published autobiography that he wasn't arrested for drugs — but for threatening the status quo in the city.

"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 wrote. "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."

A triumphal return?

After being released from prison in 1992 and treated to a hero's welcome in D.C., Barry quickly reverted to what he knew best: running for office. He quickly won the race for the Ward 8 seat on the D.C. Council, and later won his fourth term as mayor.

But what would be his last term for mayor quickly turned challenging when the city faced large budget deficits and the imposition of a federal Control Board to help fill a $700 million budget hole.

"I think Congress took action to set up the control board for two reasons: they couldn’t abide Marion Barry being mayor again, and the deficit, all the red ink, gave them a reason to take over the city," says Jaffe.

I’m really upset that this mean-spirited Republican-led Congress has broken too many of our spirits. We walk around with our heads down. Has taken our self-respect from us, has taken our dignity from us," said Barry at the time.

Retirement, return and a changing city

In 1998, Barry announced his retirement. He said, though, he wouldn't be leaving the city behind. "I want to lead a fight to revive our spirits. To give hope again to Washington," he said.

In the years since, the city has bounced back — and some of the groundwork was laid during Barry’s years as mayor, including much of the development downtown, and around the Verizon Center.

Bernard says Barry remained a hero for many Washingtonians, despite his personal shortcomings.

"You always knew that no matter what Marion Barry had going on in his personal life, he was there for his people. And I think that, particularly in a country that is not yet “post-racial” — you know, to know that there is a black man in office who has your back — he’s got some problems, but he has your back," she says.

Barry always argued that the media fixated on those problems, ignoring his accomplishments. "I’ve had over forty years of public years. Fifty years. And what the media tends to do — if you put it in chapter terms: 100 chapters of my life, long life — the media tends to focus on just two chapters. The 98 chapters are gone, by the wayside," he said in a 2010 interview.

Barry returned to office in 2005, elected to represent Ward 8 on the D.C. Council. In recent years, he suffered a number of health issues, including a kidney transplant and surgery for prostate cancer. He was in and out of the hospital in January and February, and late last week.

On Sunday morning, one of the city's most beloved — and polarizing — figures was dead.

Friends remember Barry

In a statement issued on Sunday, Mayor Vincent Gray mourned Barry's loss.

“Marion was not just a colleague but also was a friend with whom I shared many fond moments about governing the city,” said Gray. “He loved the District of Columbia and so many Washingtonians loved him.”

In the statement, Gray said his office would help plan "official ceremonies worthy of a true statesman of the District of Columbia." Gray ordered flags in the city to fly at half-staff.

President Barack Obama offered his condolences, praising Barry's role in the civil rights movement.

"Through a storied, at time tumultuous life and career, he earned the love and respect of countless Washingtonians, and Michelle and I extend our deepest sympathies to Marion's family, friends and constituents today," Obama said.

D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton recalled the mayor's rise in a statement, calling him "larger-than-life."

"From my earliest encounter with Marion Barry, when he was the first chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee until I came back home and found him mayor of my home town, I have seen Marion take hold and write his signature boldly on his own life and times and on the nation's capital," Norton said.

D.C. Council member Anita Bonds (D-At Large), who helped run Barry's first campaign for the Board of Education, hailed the former mayor in a statement.

"Marion was a political genius, community outreach expert, champion of the over-looked and the left-out while emphasizing the inclusion of everyone. He was a warm compassionate human being and proud public servant who was the only D.C. politician with coattails," she said.

Mayor-elect Muriel Bowser appeared at the United Medical Center early on Sunday, where she spoke warmly of Barry's legacy.

“We are saddened and shocked and we will miss Mayor Marion Barry. He has been an inspiration to so many people and a fighter for people and a champion for the people of Ward 8... He has left lessons about how to help people in the city that will live on for years and years to come,” she said.

This story was last updated at 7:30 a.m. on Monday, Nov. 24.


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