Monday, November 24, 2014

MARION BARRY: DC's Mayor for Life

In the early morning hours, on November 23, 2014, I learned via my Facebook feed, that former District of Columbia Mayor, Marion Barry, transitioned from this life.  I can't say that I was completely shocked, he was 78 years old and he had been in and out of the hospital for at least the last couple of years.

I immediately thought to myself that DC would be in mourning for months, and that there would be street and school name changes, Go-Go and outdoor memorial concerts, and documentaries and television specials in the name of DCs most famous mayor.

I also thought about my personal memories of Marion Barry.  Though I am not an ardent supporter of Barry, I still respect the things he has done for me and the District of Columbia.  Check out my thoughts after the jump.

Before I reveal my personal opinion of the former mayor, it is important to understand the man.  Marion Barry was born in 1936, in Itta Bena, Mississippi.  In the deep south, Barry observed and experienced harsh racism and determined that he would become a civil rights activist to combat it. 

Barry received his Bachelor's from Lemoyne-Owen College and
a Masters from Fisk University.  Both degrees were in Organic Chemistry, revealing that Barry was an intelligent man.  He even entered Doctoral programs at the University of Kansas and the University of Tennessee Knoxville, but left both programs based on new directions his life was taking.

After school, Barry held a variety of positions in the civil rights organization, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.  In that organization, Barry honed his skills as a community organizer and electrified audiences with his southern charm and ability to connect with the common man.  Working as a community organizer eventually brought Barry to the District of Columbia.

In 1971, Barry was elected to serve as an At-Large member on the District of Columbia's school board.  He was quickly elected to serve as the board's president.  In 1974, when the federal government established Home Rule in the District, Barry was elected to serve as a council member.  In 1977, while serving as a council member, Barry was shot near his heart by radical Muslims when they overthrew the city's District building.

After becoming a "hero", resulting from the shooting, Barry was elected Washington, DC's second mayor in 1978.  He rode a wave of enthusiasm as the District's champion and served as Mayor from 1979 until 1991 and again from 1995 until 1999.  Barry served on the City Council from 2005 until his death on November 23, 2014.

Now, I had heard all about Barry from my parents, and let me tell you, they loved him.  Barry spoke out against the Reagan administration (This was the first administration I remembered them speaking of) and fought to end unemployment by creating government jobs.  Blacks were working in the District, and boy were they getting paid.  Many of the people Barry hired received six-figure salaries and never reported to work.  Phones rang off the hook and you couldn't leave a message because the answering machines were full. 

Government corruption and waste was rampant under the Barry Administration.  Workers came to work if they felt like it.  Many of them sat at desks and watched television all day.  Firing a city worker seemingly took an act of Congress.  Government mismanagement was so bad that at one point the DC government did not know how many employees it had.  I was aware of this.  But still I supported him.

My first interaction with Barry occurred when I turned 14.  As a young black male in the District of Columbia, in the nineties might I add, there was nothing in the summer for me but trouble.  However, regardless of the city's budget woes, Barry ensured that youth kept summer jobs.  And consequently, that kept most of us out of trouble and most importantly, alive. 

The summer job taught me work place behavior and skills, it taught me the concept of professionalism, and it taught me the value of working hard to earn a check.  Superficially, I was able to use the money to buy the latest sneakers and threads so I could go back to school in style.  Over time, I learned how to manage my money and not to blow it all on material things.  These things gave me the tools to find a successful career in law, which I thank Barry for.

However, I soon stopped seeing Barry as a role model.  And no, I didn't lose respect for Barry after he decried, "The B@%* set me up!"  I lost respect for him because he wouldn't leave office to help the city he "loved" so much.

You see, federal officials and Republican Congress members hated Barry.  They were the ones that
organized the drug sting against him in 1990.  They sat back with joy as he was touted on television sets across the world as the "Drug Mayor" and they figured he was gone for good.  Not so much, because when Barry completed his six-month stint in prison for possessing Cocaine, residents elected him for a fourth term in 1994.  Republicans were livid, and they made the city pay for bringing Barry back.

Wall Street reduced the District's credit rating to junk status.  The newly elected Republican Congress placed high-profile institutions like St. Elizabeth's Hospital in Receiverships and created the District of Columbia Financial Control Board.  This entity controlled the day to day financial operations of the city and could even override fiscal decisions made by Barry.

Things were bleak in the city.  Crime rose, unemployment skyrocketed, social programs disappeared,
and economic development programs were put on hold.  In short, Congress tightened the proverbial purse strings and placed the city in a financial stranglehold.  All because Barry wouldn't leave office.

Now I know my position on Barry isn't popular.  He is as revered in Washington, DC as Obama is to African-Americans in the US.  Barry fought for youth to work in the summer, he ensured housing for senior citizens and low-income residents, he placed blacks in prominent government positions, he ensured black presence in the City Counsel, and he even advocated for gay equality in the District.  I respect those things that he did.  My issue is that he wasted such a talented mind on vices.

How could I respect a man that couldn't be faithful to his wife if his life depended on it?  How could I admire a man that fed his cronies fat government contracts at tax payer expense?  How could I follow a man that even though it meant financial destruction for the city, refused to leave office?  How could I look up to a man that would lie to you quicker than a Pimp Name Slickback?

Marion Barry was a brilliant man with charisma rivaling any POTUS.  However, he was a man that could not defeat his demons.  He was a person who chased skirts and used drugs and was so addicted to the golden throne of the spot light that he wouldn't leave office even though it hurt the citizens of the District of Columbia.  That's why his death saddens me.  He had never realized his potential to take the city to the heights that he knew it could reach.  Heights that he told us it would reach. 

Barry refused to step aside to make room for effective leadership even though his political power bar flickered at zero percent.  Marion Barry had much more work to do to achieve the lofty goals he had for Washington DC.  His dreams now go unrealized.  If only he had more time.  Regardless of the personal choices he made in life, he will remain Washington DC's favorite Mayor.  May he Rest in Peace.


1)  What are your thoughts of Marion Barry?
2)  Do you think federal officials singled him out because of his race?
3)  How will Barry be remembered?
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