By September 1989, Marion Barry was in deep political decline. With the District gripped by a blood-drenched drug epidemic and a faltering economy, Barry had turned the support of the white neighborhoods in Northwest DC that formed key parts of his earlier coalitions into enimity and distrust. And with his third term as mayor drawing to a close, his personal faults were becoming their most visible, with the city scorched by rumors of his own drug abuse.
Barry was planning on seeking a fourth term—his arrest at the Vista International Hotel was four months away—and he tried to scrounge up as much support as possible to derail a potential candidacy by the Rev. Jesse Jackson. But he probably should have skipped that year’s Adams Morgan Day festival.
Barry strode on stage in the middle of an epic jam by blues guitarist Danny Gatton. But instead of a warm welcome, the track suit-clad mayor was greeted with a sea of lusty jeers. Barry smiled through the whole thing, but in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment, stopped pumping his fist to antagonize the crowd right back with an extended middle finger. Television cameras caught the mayoral bird-flipping, which survives today on YouTube.
Here’s how the Washington Post first reported the gesture:
D.C. Mayor Marion Barry and Jesse L. Jackson appeared on the same stage at yesterday’s Adams-Morgan Day festival, but the reactions they drew from the crowd were miles apart.
Barry, who is running for another term despite continuing allegations of drug use, was greeted with boos and obscene hand gestures from some members of the audience. Smiling, the mayor responded in kind, raising his middle finger toward them.
Moments later, Jackson strode onto the stage. Jackson, who has not declared himself to be a candidate for mayor but is widely seen as positioning himself to run, was cheered loudly. He waved in response.
The finger did not go away quietly, though. Future mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly said it made Barry “essentially politically impotent.” Ward 1 voters took offense, with then-Council member Frank Smith writing an angry letter to his fellow civil-rights veteran. Barry eventually issued a public apology, one of many he would make in the later chapters of his career. “If I offended some people—and I’m sure I did—I want to apologize to those I offended,” he said three days after his one-fingered salute.
Still, it’s hard not to look at the video again and not come away thinking the sentiments from Barry and the crowd were mutual and genuine—watch Barry, who flips off the audience at the 7:14 mark, and you’ll notice he never broke his smile.
Find Benjamin Freed on Twitter at @brfreed.