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Back to Mayor’s main pageAccompanying press release

The Barry Years: 40 Years of Committed Public Service
May 21, 1998




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1958 was not a time when it was not particularly wise for black men to speak too loudly about issues of race or agitate for change. Any hint of resistance was usually met with force or violence. And not a few of the outspoken ended up being dead or wounded martyrs. But times were a-changing and for the young and not-so-young people of all hues and backgrounds, the years of the Civil Rights struggle defined a new attitude and vision which shook off many of the fears of the past.

Lynchings, beatings and murders notwithstanding, young men and women, buoyed by the winds of change ushered in by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, his lieutenants and foot soldiers in the Civil Rights movement, began challenging and confronting bigots and racists in the South head on.

Marion Barry was one of those foot soldiers and instruments of change.

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THE PERSONAL MARION BARRY: Catalyst for Action...

While a senior at LeMoyne College, a historically black institution in Memphis, Barry read a story in the Commercial Appeal about disparaging statements made by a white member of the Board of Trustees, Walter Chandler. Chandler, a former Memphis mayor and congressman, made these statements about blacks during a federal trial contesting segregation.

Barry, president of the LeMoyne chapter of the NAACP and three members, wrote a letter seeking the removal of Chandler. Barry's calls for Chandler to resign or be removed as a board member caused a furor at the school and in the community. The board termed the letter "impertinent and ill-advised" and school officials were pressured into making Barry an example.

In fact, Barry was threatened with dismissal from school two weeks shy of graduation but his resistance and widespread community support led College President Hollis F. Price to reverse himself and reinstate Barry.

"The president told me he was going to expel me and I said, 'I don't think so," Barry recalled recently. "Luckily, for me, the community came out in support of me and I was allowed to graduate." It didn't hurt that one of those who added his voice to the rising chorus of dissent was Roy Wilkins who went on to head the NAACP.

Thus began 40 years of public service -- including four terms as Mayor of Washington, D.C. -- for Barry who majored in chemistry and expected to become a school teacher.

In the coming years, he would be participate in the founding of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and work tirelessly in the deep South in the Civil Rights Rights movement; would be named SNCC's first national chairman; lead bus boycotts in the District of Columbia to protest fare increases; rattle the Washington political establishment with his in-your-face confrontational style; leverage his street smarts and political savvy into election to the D.C. School Board; then turn Washington on it ear when he beat two of the city's most powerful politicians to become Mayor in 1978.

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Marion Barry, Jr., a sharecropper's son was born in Itta Bena, Miss., to Marion Barry, Sr., and Mattie Barry on March 6,1936. As a child in Mississippi, Barry rode in the tail of his mother's gunnysack as she trudged down rows of cotton.

When he was eight, Barry's mother insisted that the family move to Memphis and she later remarried.

"We never had shoes that didn't have holes in them," Barry remembers. The new family expanded to eight children living in a four-bedroom house. Barry was the oldest and the only boy. He grew up in home with a loving mother. She said he was a church going youngster who had a smart mind.

His mother, now Mrs. Mattie Cummings, said her son had a normal childhood. "Marion was a very nice boy," she said in a 1986 Washington Post interview. "I never had any problems with him. He was always busy. Even growing up, as a young child, he wanted to be doing something. Then when he was 12, he got a job with the newspaper, delivering the newspaper."

Always industrious, no job was too hard or below the young man. Barry picked cotton alongside his mother, was a carhop, waiter and paperboy. was always very good in scouting and church work, his mother said.

Even at an early age, Barry was already trailblazing, a trait that would be evident throughout his life. For example, Barry was one of the first black Eagle Scouts in Memphis and among the first in Tennessee. An 'A' student throughout most of his high school years, he also played football and basketball and had a brief but undistinguished career as a amateur boxer..

Barry later graduated from Booker T. Washington High School in 1954. On scholarship, he earned a bachelor's degree from LeMoyne College in 1958. In 1960, Barry received a master's degree from Fisk University in Nashville. He later entered the doctoral program at the University of Tennessee in Nashville and had completed three years of course work in chemistry but dropped out to immerse himself in the burgeoning civil rights movement.

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Because of his commitment to end injustice, segregation and discrimination, Barry emerged as a civil rights activist and leader. He crisscrossed more than half a dozen Southern states agitating, organizing, participating in voting rights activities and sit- ins, getting arrested and jailed. This brand of activism was not without cost: Several of his friends and compatriots were beaten and killed. Barry's work extended beyond SNCC to encompass other civil rights organizations, including the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the National Urban League and the NAACP.

He spoke before the platform committees of the 1960 Democratic and Republican parties, along with Dr. Martin Luther King and other civil rights leaders, urging support for the Southern sit-in movement. Then in late 1964, he headed to Washington to organize field operations for SNCC.

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The crucible of the Civil Rights movement distilled Barry to the essence of what he would later become: A man who had genuine love for people, who worked hard, and who used his creativity, organizational skills and political savvy to wage many successful campaigns on behalf of the forgotten, the dispossessed and the disenfranchised. His quest was to empower the last, the least and the lost.

Julius Hobson, Jr., once said of Barry that he was a 24-hour politician who was awake working and plotting while his opponents slept. Often, these same opponents learned the hard way not to underestimate him as they attempted to look at the tire marks on their backs. Barry often gained his opponents' respect -- grudging and otherwise -- after he had out-worked, out-fundraised and outflanked them.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Barry made his mark as a brash, bold outsider rattling the nerves of the once-comfortable Washington establishment. The Dashiki- wearing firebrand was fully prepared to kick down any doors or climb any walls in his pursuit of class equity, equality and empowerment. He used a combative, in- your-face style that mirrored the anger other young blacks brought to the civil and human rights struggle.

"It was like a war," Barry told People Magazine in 1979 of his confrontational protest politics. "You change your tactics depending on where you are on the battlefield. I was definitely on the outer edges of society in terms of some of the programs I was moving. And society has always needed pressure to bring about basic changes."

His efforts paid off and he won jobs for the poor and dispossessed while leading one of the first movements for Home Rule. In 1966, Barry founded the Free D.C. movement at a time when Washingtonians were essentially powerless with all authority tied to Congress, a three-man commission, a white elite and a small black middle. His involvement in protests, coercion, block parties and other activities increased his visibility and influence in Washington's black community.

The District at the time was 63 percent black and his boycott against merchants who opposed Home Rule angered local businessmen who branded him "immoral, un-American and unjust."

In 1967, he co-founded Pride Inc., a non-profit organization employing more than 1,000 young men and which established six service stations, a neighborhood grocery store, a landscape and gardening business -- all located primarily in low-income communities. It was staffed by young, now-employed black men, ax-offenders and high school dropouts. In addition to operating businesses, participants cleaned streets, killed rats and engaged in related activities. Barry gave people who had no options, a way out of their poverty-stricken existences.

In 1971, Barry made the transition from street politics to the electoral politics. He ran for the D.C. School Board and then was elected president. He served with distinction for 30 months and in 1974 when Congress finally decided to allow local elections, he won one of two at-large seat on the District of Columbia City Council. He was named chairman of the Finance Committee. As the committee head, he was once described as "legendary for his mastery of the Byzantine intricacies of the District's budget and bureaucracy." Barry helped put the city's finances in order; pushed the executive to present honest figures and accurate budgets; offered trailblazing legislation to produce property taxes; made the local income tax system more equitable; and cut senior citizens' taxes in half.

He won re-election with 73 percent in 1976.

Barry was shot in the chest and wounded in a 1977 siege of City Hall by Hanaff Muslims. He had just left an elevator on the building's fifth floor and was walking toward the Council Chambers when he was shot. The councilman recovered from his wounds although a WHUR reporter was killed when the District building was seized.

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In 1978, Barry turned the city's political and business establishment on its collective ear when he achieved a stunning come-from-behind victory to become Washington's second elected mayor.

He was thought to not have a chance and was running third going into the primary elections but he cobbled together a coalition of seniors, liberal whites, gays and poor blacks to beat Mayor Walter Washington and Council Chairman Sterling Tucker.

Barry ran on a platform of inclusion and progressive reform and when he became Mayor, he opened city government to those who for decades had been locked out: blacks, other non-whites, women and gay. He was also instrumental in nurturing and building a nascent black middle class. It is one of the largest, most vibrant and most educated pockets of middle- and upper class blacks in the country now.

Barry was the District's second elected mayor in modern times. He inherited a stagnant bureaucracy, staggering inefficiency and waste. Yet, he came to City Hall ready to work. By all accounts, political observers note that Barry's first term was probably his best. He was described in one media account as "an effective and formidable chief executive." The new mayor rolled up his sleeves, cleaned up city finances, opened the city government and ran the city well.

Barry's first city administrator Elijah Rogers notes that the Barry Administration balanced the budget, conducted the first audit in 100 years and achieved seven years of reducing the accumulated debt. Among Barry's accomplishments, he oversaw a construction boom that led to a radically altered downtown skyline, the addition of 23 million square feet of office space in 10 years and the tripling of property tax revenue to $700 million annually.

"He could prod sluggish bureaucrats into action, articulate policy initiatives that brought sweeping changes, go face-to-face with powerful politicians and business leaders, besting them on their own terms," one story raved. And Marion Barry got results. Downtown boomed and employment grew. Opinion polls consistently gave his administration high marks for city services..."

During Barry's second term, he sought to consolidate the gains of his first term. In spite of unsubstantiated allegations of corruption and other problems, the Barry Administration still expanded downtown and provided thousands of jobs to District residents.

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Barry fell prey to the demons alcohol and illegal substances. But with a supportive pastor, Rev. Willie Wilson and a caring friend, Cora Masters, he was able to overcome. Seven years later, Barry is still substance- and alcohol-free. What happened on the night of January 18, 1990, marked the lowest point of
Barry's political and personal life.

The media and other Barry critics were quick to roll out the obituaries saying that Barry was done as a politician, especially after he was sentenced to six months jail time. Many white Washingtonians abandoned the mayor, while a significant number of their black counterparts were forgiving of Barry and understood what redemption was all about.

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Barry lost the only election of his charmed political life in November of 1990, served his time and made a triumphant return to Washington from Pennsylvania in a caravan of buses and hundreds of unflappable, vocal supporters.

Barry relocated to Ward 8 from Ward 7 and set in motion his political resurrection. He organized, built a formidable political network throughout the ward, raised money, walked door-to-door, approached untold numbers of residents seeking their support and was present at just about every civic event.

He didn't have the support of the political establishment, but his traditional constituency, the grassroots, were firmly behind him.

"For three months he toured the ward at a jackrabbit pace," noted a 1993 City Paper article. "He walked the main streets, the side streets, the back streets and the back alleys of the ward."

As he had done countless times in the past, Barry out-worked and overwhelmed his opponent Wilhelmina Rolark though she had raised a great deal more money and had the support of the Washington establishment. He registered more than 2,500 new voters and brought people to the polls who in many cases had never pulled a lever for anyone before. In the end, Barry won in a landslide, by a six to one margin.

His critics may have been confounded at this stunning reversal of Barry's fortunes, but this victory illustrates the type of personal and politician Marion Barry is. Like a phoenix, he rose from the ashes of despair, humiliation and personal tragedy and reclaimed his political life. Typical of the Barry mission, he returned from prison invigorated and ready to carry on his original mission of serving the people.

Since his re-election in November of 1994, Barry has faced an assortment of foes who have sought to bring the city and the mayor to his knees. Shortly after he took office, the Republican-led Congress appointed a five-member board of unelected officials to run a significant portion of the city's agencies. Undeterred, Barry has battled for and continued to defend the city's interests against all comers. Constant Congressional meddling, the Financial Authority's gutting of District programs and Congressionally mandated cuts primed the city for failure. Three years later, the Financial Authority's record is decidedly mixed.

Such is the hostility directed at Barry that in 1995 when he suggested that the federal government assume a greater share of its financial responsibility of federal and other programs, Barry critics were harshly critical of his proposal. Yet most of the same ideas -- shouldering the unfunded pension liability, federal control of District prisons and courts were the cornerstones of President Clinton's Revitalization Plan last August. To paraphrase the Bible, A prophet is hardly ever honored in his own land.

And his Transformation Plan which he announced in 1995 -- for which he was also criticized -- has been the foundation of many of the programs instituted by the Financial Authority.

Yet Barry has presided over the continued revitalization of downtown and laid the foundation for a new convention center. This mirrors his first and second terms when he was the spearhead behind construction of the Washington Convention Center. The MCI Center is the crown jewel of the District's downtown rebirth and reflects not just Barry's but Abe Pollin's abiding faith in the city the mayor loves so much.

During his fourth term, Barry has stood tall against all fashion of criticism and disrespect from Congressional leaders, particularly those given oversight of the District's affairs. Yet, he has been fearless in his criticism of their behavior and motives and continues to be an avid defender of the District's right to self-govern. Through it all, he has said what's on his mind and challenged lawmakers to treat the District according to the dictates laid out in the constitution.

He has been clear in his analysis of the current situation that the disrespect and humiliation regularly heaped on the District of Columbia is bigger than Marion Barry and that wherever he leaves the scene, that behavior by Congress will not change. At least Barry can hold his head high with the knowledge that he fought to raise Washingtonians from first- to second-class citizenship, tried to coerce national legislators to live the democratic ideals they export abroad and faced them down whenever they attempted to disrespect the District's citizens.

Barry has governed the city on his terms. He has weathered any number of assaults from a hostile media, Congress, the Financial Authority and other elected officials but he has stood firm. Though he has sometimes been bloodied he remains unrepentant and unbowed.

Whatever history determines Barry's legacy to be, his re-election to an unprecedented fourth term as Mayor in 1994, solidified his image as one of the purest examples of redemption, rebirth and resurrection.

When all is said and done, Barry:

  1. Helped rebuild the District's downtown
  2. Gave more than 100,000 young people summer jobs
  3. Increased senior citizen involvement and support of their programs
  4. Decreased the racism that affects non-whites
  5. Provided a catalyst for thousands of jobs for African Americans and others who had been left out
  6. Helped ax-offenders make the transition back into the wider society
  7. Brought Washington from a sleepy Southern town to a thriving metropolis and a cosmopolitan city
  8. Provided an example of inspiration and hope that a person can fall and rise again
  9. Fought constantly and tirelessly for Home Rule and democracy for the District
  10. Was a booster for the city, traveled widely spreading the word about what the city has to offer, and worked closely with business leaders to bring increased commerce and recognition to this, America's First City.

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