Marion Barry, good mayor but bad man.
Marion Barry former Mayor of the United States capital. Most known in America for his “Bitch set me up”, video taped, Ramada Inn arrest. Charged with possession of a controlled substance, he was still reelected in 1994. This proving Mayor Barry was respected by many Washington citizens and a good Mayor. Marion Barry was possibly a great man with great intentions but weaknesses to sex, drugs, racism and pressures of the position of taking care of a city.
Marion Barry born in Mississippi 1936. Raised in a poor family with a yearly income of $250, Marion grew a hatred for the white ruled society around him. Wanting so much more than what he had Marion always struggled to earn as much money as he could. Marion had many jobs as a teenager and teachers often understood he was a very hardworking individual. Barry always stayed out of crime devoting himself to hard work at school and work. (Agronsky 79-85)
Upon graduating from high school the same year of the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas Supreme Court case, Marion would be the first Barry to attend college (Agronsky 87). Growing up in the desegregation period of America shaped the racially focused person Marion Barry became. Marion Barry attended LeMoyne College in South-Memphis were he majored in Chemistry. Teachers and Students alike agree he studied Chemistry to be different from the rest of black students attending LeMoyne (Agronsky 87). Marion claims to have had very different values than others brought up in the same area as he and he was always an individual (Agronsky 88). Unlike many black students in the fifties Marion was very driven by a struggle for civil rights and racial equality. When LeMoyne trustee Walter Chandler made several anti-integration statements Marion took his first action against racism. He wrote a letter to the school newspaper demanding Chandler’s resignation. The letter was eventually reprinted in several Memphis newspapers. Upon reading the letter the NAACP executive Roy Akins stepped in and
heralded Marion as “one of the most righteous young men in Memphis!” (Agronsky 91). Even though the college was not very happy about Barry’s remarks, the students and people of Memphis regarded him as a hero and a hope in the new civil rights movement “sweeping the south” (Agronsky 93). (Agronsky 90-93)
While getting his Master’s Degree in Chemistry at Fisk University in Nashville, Marion Barry would continue the struggle for integration. Participating in sit-ins at white restaurants and other non-violent protests toward Jim Crow laws. Also at this time Marion Barry heard Martin Luther King Jr.’s inspirational words for the first time. Barry became more and more involved in the civil right movement and was eventually elected chairman of the newly formed Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Here he earned his name as a civil rights leader giving very powerful speeches and acquiring large funds for the group. (Agronsky 95-105) Often the SNCC would protest in Washington D.C. and Marion Barry gained recognition with the people of the city.
Jonathan I.Z. Agronsky claims to see a pattern in Marion Barry through all this. He believes Barry is driven by his own struggle for manhood and lust for woman. In Kansas Marion Barry taught a few chemistry classes and some female students claimed he was a sexual deviant. Also many friends he had in the civil rights movement commented on his flirtations with women. (Agronsky 95-105) Possibly this is the first warning signs of a person who will need to control himself if he wishes to represent a people or a city.
Finding politics his true calling Marion Barry dropped out of school to work full time for SNCC. After many struggles in the south to get blacks on delegation boards the SNCC would sent Marion to northern cities to gain funds for the movements. Marion would hold huge fund-raisers in New York, Chicago and Philadelphia. Barry saw that even though the northern cities were integrated they still held problems for blacks. They often lived in ghettos and with low-paying jobs. Racial situations in the city also needed social reform (Agronsky 120). The first city the SNCC approached for reform was Washington D.C., they sent Marion to head the movement there.
Even though Washington D.C. was integrated black and whites did not mix well. It was a unspoken understanding that blacks were not accepted at white establishments. A bigger problem was
that the people of the city did not have any voting privileges until 1961 when they were granted the right to vote for the president. However they did not have any representation in congress. (Agronsky 122)
The Majority of people in Washington were black. Barry felt they were not being represented. Also in urban areas it was difficult to rally many to one cause because the people “were alienated, antisocial…angrier…lacking the sharply defined target of the south… filled with undirected hostility and generalized mistrust” says Clayborne Carson (Agronsky 124). Marion however overcomes this and leads a boycott of the D.C. transit. Barry also led a campaign called “Free D.C.” which was formed to grant Washington home rule. “Free D.C.” consisted of block-parties and youth gatherings, Marion would educate blacks on the benefits of being involved in politics.(Agronsky 127-131)
Marion would later resign from the SNCC claiming “The civil rights direction of protest is dead…Now we must concentrate on control-economic and political power.” (Agronsky 131) With Youth Pride Economic Enterprises (PEE) Barry led acquired federal funds from Johnson’s Great Society and helped get thousands of black 14-18 year olds jobs cleaning the streets of D.C.. PEE also was formed to stimulate black owned business in the poor areas. Pride consisted of many parolees and despite drug abuse and a few murders linked to Pride workers, Pride helped many blacks get on the straight path to the American dream. Marion Barry became very popular with the community at this point. (Agronsky 135-148)
Barry won his first election to a Police reform board. Here The board was designed to lower crime and prevent social disturbances between Police and residents. Many did not approve of Barry’s tactics of confronting current board members and forcing them to resign. Often Marion would storm a meeting and humiliate all in attendance. He had many clashes with police but always walked off a free man. Court juries could not come to a unanimous decision and the trials would be canceled. (Agronsky 155-165) Possibly Marion was never convicted because the government feared him. Marion held great power over the poor black population of D.C..
Barry then ran for “the only elective office for which a District of Columbia resident could compete” (Agronsky 167), a seat on the Board of Education. Marion Barry was rapidly becoming a very
likable and powerful politician. He won the seat and then went on to win board president. Barry however used the position to boost his popularity and gain power in racial politics not necessarily improve the Education in the schools. Barry would often call any white politician, who opposed his actions, racist; causing them to back down. Barry however never lost face with the black citizens of Washington. This would strengthen him immensely for blacks were the majority in D.C.. (Agronsky 167-175)
In 1975 Marion runs for city councilman and wins. As councilman he gained practical police immunity and strengthened his bond with the city’s people. He would continually use race as a political tool to gain power and get things done. After a gun wound in a 1977 terrorist attack on the District Building Marion Barry gained even more popularity. He gained popularity in the now half black staffed police force and other groups. (Agronsky 175-181)
Barry finally runs for mayor 1978. With the backing of “the police union, the teacher union and the firefighters union”(Lemann) and the fact he seemed to be the “real vote against racism” (Lemann) Barry was a natural in. The Washington post believed Barry was just what the city needed, a person who would spice things up a bit. They wanted a Mayor who would not hesitate to take action. (Washington Post Editorial 1978) The city expected Barry “to narrow the gap between black and whites” (Lemann) economically and socially.
After endorsing Barry for the 1978 election, (Washington Post Editorial 1978) they seem to regret it the next year. In a 1979 article Coleman claims his speeches content have become more like that of the slow and oaf like Washington (Barry’s predecessor) “than of the outrages of American materialism and injustices of racial discrimination that once were Barry’s major themes.” (Coleman) Quoting Barry, “If I can just get everybody to answer the phone right, that’s drastic change, that’s revolution”, Coleman proves Barry is perhaps not the Mayor everyone claimed he would become. (Coleman) Yet perhaps the media is always negative about American politicians.
Barry did go through some obvious changes when he came to his political office. He no longer was the black activist he once ones. He was now part of the black middle class and would attend black middle-class events more than not. Taking such action as building middle class neighborhoods in
Washington D.C. instead of city housing. The black middle class “whose support Barry didn’t get in his last campaign but will probably need to get reelected” says Lemann (Lemann). Barry seemed to take on a new attitude but people still wanted him, he had done a great deal for D.C. in the past. Lemann was worried he would not pull through for the poor blacks as promised. (Lemann)
Barry seemed to promise more than he would deliver (Lemann). He did provide jobs for unemployed youth but not the number he had promised (Lemann). He did give 25% of government contracts to black owned firms but did no create any new firms (Lemann). Looking past their complaints the Washington Post again endorses Barry at reelection time in 1982.
Barry, in his first term, had removed some of the “deadwood” bureaucrats and replaced them with “first-rate people”, said the Post. He also had put the Districts financial affairs in order. Although he did not pull through all his promises the ones he did were satisfactory. (Washington Post Editorial 1982) Marion went on to win the 1982 election.
Two years into his second term Barry ran into a few more problems. He had failed to bring about 7% pay raises without the 540 job losses. He eliminated the General Public Assistance Program. He also let the property tax increase after promising not to. (Pianin, Sherwood) However Washington D.C. still believed “His political instincts and his particular feelings for the city’s constituencies remain exceptionally keen” (Washington Post Editorial 1986). Crime was down to that of average for an American city, their were many summer jobs for youth and municipal services had improved greatly (Washington Post Editorial 1986). All this and the lack of a better choice helped Barry get elected to his third term.
In the last year of his third term Barry was caught in an F.B.I. sting. He was in a hotel room with an old girlfriend when he smoked some F.B.I. supplied crack-cocaine. F.B.I. agents stormed the room and arrested him. This was part of an attempt to clean up the District government. He was defeated for a council seat he was running for following his arrest. For the 13 charges against he was convicted of one which was the possession of cocaine. Sentenced to six months in jail he was able to finish his last
year in office and serve time the following year. Marion had breached the public’s trust and opened himself to his enemies. (Thompson, York)
Marion Barry returns in 1992 to be elected Ward 8 Council Seat, at this point he seems almost invincible. Then when he regains his title as Mayor Barry in the 1994 election, Marion proves he is invincible. However the title Mayor no longer holds the power it did in the 80s. Congress created a control board for the Districts Mayor’s office that limited it’s power. This new control board seems to be an attempt to keep Washington D.C. from home rule and to stop a man they fear greatly. (Loeb) Marion did not seek a fifth term as Mayor.
Washington citizens have no representation in Congress and therefore I believe this control board is unfair. The people reelected Barry and therefore must trust him. Congress has never limited a Mayor’s power before (Shepard). Congress should not be able to take the power from the people because they fear a black Mayor that has made a few mistakes in the past. Barry paid for his mistakes yet is not allowed to wield the power he was granted by the majority of his city.
Marion Barry has shown us America is the land of opportunity. He has also showed us how unfair our government may be. Barry has shown us two extremes, any goal can be accomplished, yet we must still work on our system to perfect it.
Marion Barry has seen many generations come and go. He has seen his political career come and go. He has seen the civil rights movement come and go. He’s seen a fair government come and go. Marion has showed us the majority truly does rule, by selecting a sinful Mayor on his merits and not his demerits. However he has showed us in the case of Washington D.C. of government can be unfair and we must not stand for it.
Agronsky, Jonathan I.Z.. Marion Barry: The politics of Race. Latham: British American Publishing. 1991.
Barras, Jonetta Rose. The Last of the Black Emperors. Baltimore: Bancroft Press. 1998
Coleman, Milton. “Marion Barry: The Activist Denies He’s Changed.” Washington Post 2 January 1979
Lemann, Nicholas. “The Question Is: Will He Deliver?” Washington Post 16 December 1979
Loeb, Vernon. “D.C.’s Mild-Mannered Mayor.” Washington Post 24 October 1997: B01
“Marion Barry for Mayor.” Editorial. Washington Post 30 August 1978
“Marion Barry for Mayor.” Editorial. Washington Post 2 November 1986
“Marion Barry: Making of a Mayor.” 21 May 1998 (25 February 2000).
“The Next Mayor….” Editorial. Washington Post 10 September 1982
Piann, Eric and Tom Sherwood. “Barry’s Chickens Prepare to Roost.” Washington Post 19 January 1983
Shepard, Paul. “‘Mayor for Life’ Without a City.” Kansas City Star 23 August 1997: n.p.
York, Michael and Track Thompson. “Barry Sentenced to Months in Prison.” Washington Post 27 October 1990: A01