I was a bit surprised to read that former “Mayor for Life” Marion Barry passed away early this morning. Barry, the long-term mayor of the District of Columbia, certainly made his mark on the nation’s capital. In the eyes of many, the mark was not a good one. I confess that I, one of the many people outside the D.C. line, enjoyed lampooning the man. Mostly we whites and moneyed class saw Marion Barry as an embarrassment. It wasn’t just Republicans that felt this way. It included Democrats, and pretty much any non-black Democrat living in or around the district. We would shake our heads at his missteps and travails. In our minds he was not just an embarrassment, but had committed the unforgivable sin of not thinking and behaving like we assumed he should behave. He wasn’t white enough for us. Well, duh! Why should he have been?
His passing though triggers feelings of wistfulness in me. I had hardly arrived in the area in 1978 when he was elected as mayor. He took his first term of office in January 1979, only the second mayor in D.C.’s short history of “home rule”. I put this is quotes because as anyone who lives around here know, D.C. mayors and its city council are always on a short leash. Congress lets D.C. rule itself until the moment it decides it doesn’t like the decision of the district’s democratically elected council members, and then it overrides it. The unspoken rationalization: “We got to keep those niggers in line.”
The district is still Chocolate City, but less so than it used to be. Washington is becoming hipper, trendier and more multicultural. Many dicey neighborhoods have been gentrified since 1979, bringing in more affluent whites and Asians while moving out the poor. When blacks move into neighborhoods, people scream about property values, but when whites do it, it’s somehow okay. Blacks moved principally south into Anacostia and east into Northeast Washington.
Barry was one of many ineffectual mayors who tried to improve the lots of his poorest constituents. The difference with Barry was he was not opposed to a little socialism. He saw it as the business of government to step in where no one else would. Aside from more parks and a convention center (which was torn down a couple of decades later for a fancier convention center), Barry also invested in D.C.’s poor black youth. The city provided summer jobs for black teens, a program that got widely noticed and made Barry hugely popular as a mayor. Barry first served a twelve-year stint as mayor, over three terms, ending in 1991. It was during this time that he because known as “mayor for life” because no one could beat him. This was also during the 1980s when the District was quite a mess. Murder and violence were rampant, not to mention a huge drug epidemic. Barry might have been mayor for life had he not been caught snorting cocaine in a carefully set up drug bust. Going to prison disqualified him from office.
Those of us outside the District’s boundaries jeered when the drug bust was made public. We knew, we knew Barry was a druggie and a philanderer, and this confirmed it. But the people of the District were largely forgiving. This was because Barry was truly one of them and a lot of them were using drugs and philandering as well. He arrived in the district in 1965 to set up offices for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a positive black power movement at the time. During the 1968 riots in the city, Barry helped coordinate the food distribution to blacks whose houses were destroyed in the rioting. Barry actually had some impressive community accomplishment prior to becoming mayor. These included organizing a bus strike and helping to increase home rule in the district. Barry was seen as a fighter for the poor and downtrodden, but in particular for the District’s blacks. He quickly was seen as one of them. D.C. voters shrugged off his conviction and jail time, and audaciously elected him as mayor again in 1995. After that one term, Barry sort of retired, and then got bored because he wasn’t doing what he knew best: practicing politics. He eventually found himself satisfied with a city council seat again representing Ward 8 (mostly Anacostia) since 2005.
Barry continued to make news, albeit with lots of snickering from those who didn’t like him, and we were voluminous. His marriage to Effi Slaughter fell apart, but after his 1993 divorce he quickly remarried Cora Masters.
But Barry cared about the District and its poor, and in that he was authentic, and his constituents sensed this. As an administrator he was so-so at best, but at least he tried. In many ways, that distinguished him. All mayors of course try to make significant changes for the better, but at least in the District they are all bound to fail, at least to some degree, simply because the city’s poverty and demographics are too great a hurdle to overcome regardless of who is in charge. At the federal level, both parties distanced themselves from him and thought he was crazy.
I now feel a bit guilty about being one of those snickering at Barry over the years. Barry was both slimy and authentic. He cared passionately about poor blacks in the city in particular and did his best to make their lives better. Unfortunately while doing so this included some minor drug use and philandering. To me, his chief virtue was that he was unfailingly entertaining. He put on a good show and helped keep the local papers full of interesting headlines. In retrospect his minuses were minor. I appreciated his general authenticity, his ability truly representing the least among us by being one of them, his sly sense of humor and for caring when most of us shook our heads and gave up on D.C.’s poor.
Within months I will be leaving the Washington D.C. region. I came in with Barry and in some sense I am leaving with Barry. He’s been a constant presence my whole time here. I’m going to miss this authentic but flawed man. In truth, he was no more flawed than any of us. It was his position and his mouth that magnified his flaws. But at least he gave a damn and cared about issues that most of us were happy to just pay lip service too.
He was a memorable character that even his detractors are going to miss.