Marion Barry: A wily survivor leaves the stage

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CLICK IMAGE for slideshow: District of Columbia Mayor Marion Barry, during an emotional moment while speaking to reporters and local supporters in Washington on Tuesday, March 13, 1990 publicly confessed a chemical dependency to alcohol and two prescription drugs, but said he would not resign as mayor during his crisis. (AP Photo/Bob Daugherty)
CLICK IMAGE for slideshow: District of Columbia Mayor Marion Barry, during an emotional moment while speaking to reporters and local supporters in Washington on Tuesday, March 13, 1990 publicly confessed a chemical dependency to alcohol and two prescription drugs, but said he would not resign as mayor during his crisis. (AP Photo/Bob Daugherty)

Marion Barry had an impeccable sense of timing, even in his death.

In 1960 he became the first chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), because the favored candidate had left the room.

When he arrived in the District of Columbia in 1965, the nation’s capital was just beginning to elect leaders for a new, local political system, thanks in part to LBJ. Barry astutely analyzed the power structure and exploited it to become mayor in 1978.

A dealmaker at heart, he rode the real estate boom of the 1980s to rebuild D.C.’s downtown, finance a bureaucracy jammed with city workers loyal to him and bestow contracts on black businessmen. He created a black middle class.

When he returned to the District in 1990 after serving six months for a cocaine rap, he saw a city still vulnerable to his political charms and lacking leadership. Four years later he confounded critics and got elected to his fourth term as mayor.

And when he died early Sunday morning at the age of 78, his power had waned, the District’s African-American population had dropped below 50 percent, and newcomers had no idea Barry was the politician who opened the government to African-Americans after decades of Southern white politicians ruling the city from Congress.

D.C. was no longer Chocolate City; Barry’s moment had passed. It was time to leave the stage.

“I am a situationist,” Barry once said. The situation had become untenable.

There is no middle ground in judging Marion Barry. For the vast majority of white residents of Washington and across the country, Barry will be remembered as a womanizing politician, addicted to alcohol, drugs and power. To them he squandered opportunities to govern D.C. well and become a leader in the national arena. Instead, he was the butt of jokes on late-night TV.

But most African-Americans in D.C. have enshrined him as the strong leader who shared their struggles, overcame the odds and prevailed against a system that discriminated against blacks. He gave many Washingtonians their first jobs. They saw him as the man who never backed down in confrontations with the white establishment. Regardless of his personal failings, they embraced him as their own.

The straight facts of Barry’s life make him one of the most influential politicians of his time. Born to sharecroppers in the Mississippi Delta, he excelled in school and became one of Tennessee’s first black Eagle Scouts after his family moved to Memphis. He earned a master's degree in chemistry before joining the civil rights movement. In Washington, he founded Pride, Inc., to provide jobs for African-Americans. He was elected to the D.C. school board in 1971, won a seat on the District council and rode his political machine to four terms as mayor. He was representing D.C.’s Ward 8, the city’s poorest neighborhoods, when he died.

In all, Barry served 40 years in elective office, a record that rivals any politician in any other major city. He was perhaps the last black civil rights leader to hold public office, putting him in a class by himself.

The awful irony of Barry’s political career is that he failed to improve the lives of the poor Washingtonians who revered and elected him time and time again. When he first won the mayoralty in 1978, communities east of the Anacostia River were home to the city’s downtrodden. In his four terms and more than a decade on the council, he did little to lift them from poverty. He allowed their schools to fester and become the worst in the country. When crack cocaine overcame the District in the 1980s and the murder rate neared 500, Barry became addicted to the drug. The streets of Anacostia ran with blood. In his third term, from 1986 to 1990, he succumbed to various addictions, and the government failed to function, especially for the needy.

Investigated by D.C. police and the FBI, Barry was arrested in a downtown hotel with a crack pipe in his mouth in January 1990, after an old flame lured him into the trap. Barry uttered the infamous line: “Bitch set me up.”

Barry wasn’t a model citizen. He was prosecuted for failing to pay taxes, investigated for getting kickbacks from a girlfriend and castigated for offending Filipinos and other Asians.

What amazed me and many others was Barry’s survival instinct. Through myriad ailments, from prostate cancer to a kidney transplant and blood infections, through four marriages and his continued addiction to drugs, he held his head high and kept showing up.

He defied death until the time was right.

Harry Jaffe is national editor for Washingtonian magazine and co-author of "Dream City: Race, Power, and the Decline of Washington, D.C."

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