Marion Barry, DC’s "Mayor for Life," Dies at Age 78

The four-term mayor and four-term DC Council member defined generations of local politics.
Marion Barry, DC’s "Mayor for Life," Dies at Age 78
Photograph by Flickr user Tom Bridge.

Five years ago, as a hearing was about to begin on the fifth floor of the John A. Wilson Building, an elevator opened and a figure slowly emerged, walking gingerly with a cane. The pants of his tan suit flapped around his thin legs as he made his way to the heavy wooden DC Council chamber doors. Only as he drew closer did it become obvious that the man was Marion Barry, then a councilman representing Ward 8, still frail in the early stages of recovering from a kidney transplant.

“Mr. Mayor,” a reporter said, holding the door open to the chamber.

Passing through the door, Barry drew his shoulders back, stood upright, and smiled. He took his seat on the dais, and for the next two hours he starred at the budget hearing, asking succinct questions, schooling his colleagues, instructing witnesses—and talking on his cell phone.

“Even on his worst day, he was better than anyone else,” says Barbara Lang, the former DC Chamber of Commerce leader who worked with—and against—Barry for more than a decade.

He once described himself as “a situationist,” by which he meant he did whatever was necessary to adapt to any situation.

During his nearly half century as the central character in DC politics, he kept coming back: from arrests as a civil-rights activist in the 1960s, from being wounded in the chest when the armed Hanafi Muslim sect took over the District Building in 1977, from jail after his 1990 cocaine conviction, from kickback schemes that brought censure from his city-council colleagues, from cancer and diabetes and the kidney transplant.

Barry died early Sunday at age 78 at United Medical Center in the heart of his beloved Ward 8.

Barry’s death came hours after he was released Saturday from a two-day stay at Howard University Hospital, where he was admitted Thursday after “not feeling like himself,” said his spokeswoman, LaToya Foster. He stopped for a meal after being discharged from Howard early Saturday evening, and collapsed upon arriving home, Foster said. His driver called the paramedics. Barry’s son, Christopher, and his wife, Cora Masters Barry, joined him at United Medical Center shortly before 1:45 AM Sunday when doctors pronounced the former mayor dead.

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

Among Barry’s final visitors was Mayor-elect Muriel Bowser, for whom he campaigned vigorously in this month’s election.

We are saddened and shocked and we will miss Mayor Marion Barry,” Bowser said in a hospital auditorium in front of more than a dozen of the former mayor’s aides, family members, and friends, several of whom were in tears. “He lived up until the last minute the way he wanted to live.”

In the late winter of 2014, Barry tried to return to office from a series of illnesses and hospital stays, most recently a 23-day stay at Washington Hospital Center in February and March for a blood infection he said “knocked me to my knees.” Just a few days after being discharged, he was hitting the campaign trail on behalf of Gray’s ultimately unsuccessful re-election bid.

Foster said details of Barry’s funeral are still being determined by his family, but added that the public will get ample chance to say farewell.

“It’s going to be big, epic, monumental, just the way he would have liked it,” she said.

Marion Barry defined politics in the nation’s capital in the modern era. In a literal sense, Barry brought black power to the District. He created the city’s first political machine, rode it to four mayoral terms, and used it to remain in elective office long past his prime.

Even before Congress granted the District limited self-government under the 1974 Home Rule Act, Barry was a leader in DC’s local affairs, first on the streets, then in the suites. He was the city’s longest-serving elected official, acting in various capacities for 40 years, a tenure that certainly rivals any political career in any major city in the nation. Elected school-board president in 1971, he moved up to city council in 1974 and won his first mayoral term in 1978. His last, 1994 to 1998, followed his six-month imprisonment for cocaine possession. Washington City Paper dubbed him “Mayor for Life,” and the term took hold well beyond the alt-weekly’s pages.

“He certainly was a voice for the underserved and underrepresented African-Americans in the city,” Lang says. “And he knew how to manage politics better than anyone.”

For much of his career, Barry split the city along racial lines. African-Americans saw him as the unapologetic black leader who broke down the doors of a city government that had been closed to them. In the eyes of many white Washingtonians, he ran a corrupt, ineffective government and succumbed to his weaknesses for alcohol, women, and drugs. Blacks forgave his human frailties; he made his troubles their troubles. Whites judged him and cringed when he became the butt of jokes on late-night television.

“You either loved Marion or hated him,” says retired Metropolitan Police Department lieutenant Lowell Duckett, a native Washingtonian who served under Barry. “There was no middle ground.”

Phillip Pannell is a political activist who campaigned for and against Barry. “Marion Barry had an uncanny ability to draw people into his life,” says Pannell, who served on two city commissions as a Barry appointee. “Everyone in the city became the audience to his dramas, even when they didn’t buy a ticket.”

Says civic activist Marie Drissel: “Marion was brilliant but flawed. He could have walked with the giants.”

Barry was hospitalized for 23 days in early 2014 with a blood infection. Photograph by Benjamin Freed.

What often gets lost in the emotional reactions Barry engendered was the man’s brains, political skills, prodigious memory, and seductive personality.

“Marion was wicked smart,” says Charlene Drew Jarvis, who served on the DC Council for 21 years, many while Barry was mayor.

Barry was born March 6, 1936, in Itta Bena, Mississippi, a tiny town in the Delta. When he was four, his mother, Mattie, moved with him and his two sisters to Memphis. His father didn’t accompany them, and Barry never had much to say about him.

Mattie Barry worked as a domestic and took her children to Arkansas to chop cotton. She worked on a meatpacking line, where she met David Cummings, a butcher, whom she married, merging their families and having two daughters with him. Barry grew up in a four-room house with his mother, stepfather, and seven sisters in the Foot Hill public-housing projects of South Memphis.

Eager to escape poverty, Barry sold newspapers, made sandwiches to sell at school with bologna leftover from his stepfather’s butcher shop, and waited tables. He graduated from Booker T. Washington High in 1954 with grades strong enough to get him into the National Honor Society. He became one of the first black Eagle Scouts in Memphis.

At LeMoyne College, in South Memphis, two professors introduced him to the radical route that led him into the civil-rights movement. In 1958, midway through his senior year, Marion Barry took part in the Memphis bus-desegregation case. He rebuked a white city lawyer in public, leading NAACP executive director Roy Wilkins to say to an audience at the Memphis Masonic Temple that Barry had “the heart of a lion.”

LeMoyne president Hollis Price would later say, “Marion started to believe that he was sort of a messiah.”

Barry continued to lead protests and joined with radical young activists to form the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1960. He was elected SNCC’s first chairman and wound up testifying before the platform committee at the 1960 Democratic convention in Los Angeles.

“For 350 years, the American Negro has been sent to the back door in education, housing, employment, and the rights of citizenship at the polls,” he told the committee. He urged the convention to use the government “to eradicate our national shame, Jim Crow, and second-class citizenship.” He was 24 years old.

And though at the time Barry had little connection to Washington, DC, he urged the Democrats to “provide self-government to the voteless residents of our nation’s capital.”

He left SNCC after five months to return to his studies, first at the University of Kansas and then the University of Tennessee. He was on track to get a doctorate in chemistry but left without the degree to return to SNCC in 1964 as an organizer and fundraiser. His assignment: to run the SNCC operation in Washington.

Barry’s first wife, Blantie Charlesetta Evans, whom he had married in 1962, didn’t make the move with him to DC. In divorce papers filed in 1969, she alleged Barry had “disappeared in June 1964,” and left her “impoverished.”

When he arrived in the nation’s capital in 1965 at age 31, Barry found a Southern city ripe for the kind of tactics he’d learned in the student civil-rights movement.

Congressional committees chaired predominantly by Southern segregationists ruled DC, because the US Constitution had created it as a federal district rather than an independent city. Residents had no right to elect local officials and had been disenfranchised for nearly a century. Three commissioners appointed by the White House managed the government, and white businessmen controlled the commissioners. Poor black neighborhoods suffered from substandard healthcare, bad schools, and high unemployment.

The situation called for a civil-rights militant. Fresh from his leadership role in the South, Barry—sporting a thin Fu Manchu mustache, an Afro, and a bullet worn as an amulet on his neck—filled the bill. He vilified “congressional overlords” and “money-lord merchants,” romanced white liberals, organized poor blacks, and charmed journalists. He organized bus boycotts and founded the Free DC movement. He convinced then Labor Secretary Willard Wirtz to fund a jobs program called Pride Inc., to help find employment for African-American laborers. The SNCC chief’s dashing mixture of style and substance caught the city’s attention. Later, it would propel him to power and keep him there for decades.

To President Lyndon B. Johnson, the District’s lack of voting rights was a civil-rights issue, and Johnson devoted himself to establishing local government in the nation’s capital. After setting up an appointed city council in 1967, the President crusaded for legislation to give DC self-government. His efforts led to the creation of an elected school board in 1969. Congress eventually passed the Home Rule Act of 1974, which established the elected mayor and council.

Barry didn’t have much of a role in forming the city’s elected government, but he took advantage of the new situation as quickly as he could. Running for office in the 1970s, he pivoted, trimming his Afro and ditching the amulet. Donning blue pinstripe suits, he began to harvest campaign contributions from DC’s developers and bankers. He won the presidency of the board of education in 1971. In 1974, he was elected to an at-large city-council seat in the first elected council under the Home Rule Act. Appointed to chair the Finance and Revenue Committee, he used the post to study the District’s budget and build ties to the business community.

Barry in 2011. Photograph by Christopher Leaman.

In his first mayoral campaign, in 1978, Barry ran as a populist who vowed to make the DC government function for residents. He took on incumbent Walter Washington, the city’s first elected mayor, and council chair Sterling Tucker, stitching together a coalition of liberal whites and working-class blacks. The Washington Post promoted him with six endorsements, which helped secure him votes in predominantly white Ward 3. He won a narrow victory in the three-way race in the Democratic primary, which, like today, all but guaranteed a victory in the general election.

Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall swore Barry into office on January 2, 1979, as the District’s second mayor. Barry’s mother looked on from a few feet away, along with his third wife, Effi.

Barry had run on the promise of racial harmony and integration. Once in office, he abandoned his biracial politics. He knew African-American voters dominated elections, so he built his base on the city’s black community, preaching opportunity rather than racial harmony, and he delivered. He made sure African-Americans got city-government jobs and contracts that had been off-limits to them. He courted black preachers, seniors, and teenagers, many of whom got their first jobs in his summer youth programs.

“Marion gave opportunities to blacks that were not there before,” says Doug Patton, a political activist and lobbyist going back to the early days of elective government in DC. “The police force, the fire department, the entire government was pretty much white. He opened the doors for blacks.”

In his second and third terms, Barry presided over the first major redevelopment of downtown, but increasingly his government became known for overspending, poor services, and corruption. White voters west of Rock Creek Park lost their zeal for Barry, and he became more dependent on his African-American base, which reelected him in 1982 and 1986.

“As an elected official, Marion often misconstrued the mission of his government as one to provide reparations to black Americans,” says Jarvis. “Somehow he came to believe the government was the employer of first resort. He hired without much criteria. His greatest failure was in not training city workers for their jobs. It would have helped the government and in their own lives.”

Barry made sure that African-American companies got their share of city contracts, though he did a poor job of holding them accountable. In the process, he enriched many political allies.

Bob Johnson, founder of Black Entertainment Television, got an early boost thanks to Barry. When DC chose BET to operate its first cable-TV franchise in 1984, Barry lobbied for District Cablevision, Johnson’s group, which won the contract. The deal helped launch Johnson’s career as a media entrepreneur. He would become the first African-American billionaire.

Crack cocaine hit the city in the 1980s, destroying entire communities and driving up the homicide rate to its height of 482 in 1991. The nation’s capital became the murder capital. A defensive Mayor Barry said in 1989: “Washington is not Dodge City.”

But Barry was succumbing to cocaine himself. He had always roamed the streets and clubs after dark, but in his third term he became more brazen. His dalliances with women were legion and legendary. His second marriage in 1973, to Mary Treadwell, an activist who had helped him organize Pride Inc., was strained by his many affairs. They separated in 1976 and divorced the following year.

Effi Barry, whom he married in 1978, endured his wayward ways and called him “a night owl.”

Along the way, his management of the government suffered even more. In the halls of the District Building, aides had to deal with a chief executive who was losing control. In 1986, former city administrator Tom Downs stopped into the office of Herb Reid, then Barry’s political adviser.

“How’s Marion?” Downs asked.

“If it walks, he fucks it,” Reid responded. “If it doesn’t, he ingests it.”

By 1989, Barry had become an addict. When DC police, FBI agents, and federal prosecutors investigated Barry’s drug use, he insinuated that the white establishment wanted to run him out of office. “Marion was a very clever political strategist,” says Jarvis. “Some of his tactics were racially divisive. Confrontation is what he learned in the civil-rights movement, and he used it when he needed.” The tactic worked, insofar as it solidified his support among African-American residents, who stayed with him even as reports kept surfacing that he was taking drugs.

In January 1990, DC police and FBI agents secretly videotaped the mayor smoking crack cocaine in the Vista International Hotel in downtown DC. Supporters accused federal authorities of entrapping Barry by using an old flame to lure him into the hotel. On the video, Barry could he heard saying, “Bitch set me up.” During his trial that summer, supporters took to the federal courthouse lawn, dubbed “Barry Beach,” to rally for the mayor and hawk T-shirts that read “Bitch Set Him Up.”

Charged with 14 counts, Barry was convicted of a single count of possession, a misdemeanor. Federal judge Robert Penfield Jackson handed down a six-month sentence.

Barry served his time, returned to DC, surveyed the political landscape, and looked for the right situation. He saw an opportunity in the race to represent Ward 8, the city’s poorest and most African-American district, east of the Anacostia River. In 1992, he took on Wilhelmina Rolark, a veteran legislator who had been one of his steadfast allies. Barry donned his dashiki and kente cloth, campaigned in the public housing projects and basketball courts, and won.

Barry and Effi filed for divorce in March 1993. Their only child, Christopher, was 12 at the time. He moved in with his father. The following January, Barry married his friend Cora Masters. They would separate in 2012 but remain married.

In 1994, Barry again ran for mayor, taking on the unpopular incumbent, Sharon Pratt Kelly, who had failed to connect with voters, come off as imperial, and run up a massive deficit. Barry won an unprecedented fourth term as mayor, again splitting the vote along racial lines.

Congress was not pleased at Barry’s re-emergence. Under the Home Rule Act, it retained ultimate control over the city’s budget and laws. With the federal city headed toward potential bankruptcy, Congress installed a financial control board to manage the District’s money. Without control over the purse strings. Barry’s power was severely curtailed. He served out his term but said he was retiring from politics to become a consultant.

That “retirement” lasted barely five years. In 2004, he ran again for the Ward 8 council seat, this time beating incumbent Sandy Allen, another friend and ally. He won two more terms and held the Ward 8 seat until the end.

Marion Barry never settled into a comfortable role as senior statesman, either politically or personally. In his last decade in office, he managed to run afoul of the law, ethics, and civil discourse.

After leaving the mayor’s office, he had quit paying taxes. Federal prosecutors went to court to force him to pay back taxes, and in 2005 he pleaded guilty to not filing federal or DC returns after 1999. A judge gave Barry three years’ probation. When he continued to ignore his tax bills, federal prosecutors asked a judge to give him jail time, but she declined. Prosectors brought Barry back to court in 2009 for failing to file his 2007 return. The federal government garnished his council paychecks to collect nearly $200,000 in taxes, penalties, and interest. The District put him on a voluntary payment plan to pay back about $50,000 in back taxes.

Meanwhile, Barry got caught twice crossing ethical lines as a council member.

In February 2010, he admitted to awarding a $15,000 contract to a girlfriend. “I apologize for my actions and lack of sound judgment and for causing great embarrassment to the city and the city council,” he said. His girlfriend had paid him “several thousand dollars,” he said, which he claimed was repayment of a loan. His council colleagues saw it as a kickback, censured Barry, and stripped him of his chairmanship.

In September 2013, the council censured Barry again, this time for accepting $6,800 in cash from two city contractors.

As his health began to fail, Barry’s prejudices went on display. In April 2012, he lashed out at Chinese merchants in his ward: “We’ve got to do something about these Asians coming in, opening up businesses, those dirty shops.” His comments were caught on camera the night he won another Ward 8 council primary. He suggested African-American “businesspeople” take their places.

Barry later apologized.

A few weeks later, he complained that a growing number of healthcare workers were “immigrants who are nurses, particularly from the Philippines,” and added, “Let’s grow our own nurses.”

Again, he apologized.

As his health continued to decline, Barry floated the idea that his only child, Christopher, might take his place on the DC Council. In November 2011, when Barry was 75, he discussed with allies his plan to run for a third consecutive term as Ward 8 council member; but he intended to serve only the first of four years with his son filling in the remainder.

Christopher Barry, then 31, never showed any interest in running for office or public service. His arrests for drug possession and his other scrapes with the law have made news, and the plan to succeed his father never materialized. Barry held Ward 8 council seat until he died.

Though ill for months, Barry told friends he would die a happy man, believing that he served his community as long as he could.

His legacy will be mixed.

There’s no question that Barry yanked the District out of its midcentury torpor. Under his watch, DC’s downtown sprouted new buildings. He’ll go down as a dealmaker who encouraged development and used the tax revenues from commercial real estate to fund his government.

Nationally, he’ll always be remembered for the pantheon of human frailties that brought him low. “Womanizing had become an integral part of my lifestyle,” he told the local magazine Sister 2 Sister in 1991. The same year, he went before a national audience on Sally Jessy Raphael’s TV show and acknowledged he was addicted to women and sex. He already had owned up to problems with drugs and alcohol.

But that flawed man can’t be separated from the brash activist and a powerful political boss who so ardently promoted the interests of the city’s African-Americans. They benefited from his largesse, bonded with his success against the white establishment, and rallied to his defense at every turn.

“He provided not only opportunity but hope,” Doug Patten says, “especially for young blacks.”

With his passing, the city’s poor residents lost their champion.

Benjamin Freed contributed reporting.

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