Marion Barry’s Mixed Legacy

Last night, former “Mayor-for-Life” Marion Barry passed on.

If you live or lived for any extended period of time in the District of Columbia, you might have seen him as a civic and civil rights hero; a champion of the disenchanted and disenfranchised; the first true leader of the city — or a scofflaw, a letch, a drug user and a tax evader.

But the one thing you could not do was ignore him.

marion barry

When I first arrived in D.C. at the end of 1976, there was a definitive distinction between “tourist” Washington and the city itself. The only comparison that immediately comes to mind is the “Green Zone” in Iraq and the rest of the country.

There will be plenty written in the next few days about this incredible – yes I said incredible – man.

He started the revitalization of a city where people – both black and white – were afraid to tread at night. He brought the concept of civil rights – of which he had considerable experience before he arrived in 1965 – to a broken city.

And most importantly, to me, he made me proud to live in D.C.

One of my first jobs in D.C. was covering the District government and Barry.

I watched as the four-time mayor pushed the city of Washington and its citizens as dynamic forces.

There were always questions in the background about his infidelities and other “liberties” taken both with the law and with the City Council.

As a matter of fact, at the end of one news conference he made an overt pass at my then girlfriend and I unabashedly said if I ever saw that again, I wouldn’t care that he was mayor.

We also both worked out at the same YMCA, so I am pretty glad I never had to carry through on any threats.

I was also on the scene of the now-forgotten hotel where video was taken of the mayor smoking crack and – when busted in what was obviously a frame-up – uttered the now infamous: “The bitch set me up.”

He went to jail for that, but came back and was re-elected to the City Council – several times – while continuing to be accused of various violations of traffic laws and other white-collar crimes.


Because D.C. loved Marion Barry.

I watched as Barry went into dilapidated areas of the city and offered long-boarded up houses in questionable areas of the city for $1, if the buyer agreed to have them renovated. The townhouses now sell for millions.

I watched as Barry pushed to renovate some of the city’s black landmarks – many of which were destroyed during the riots after the 1968 murder of Dr. Martin Luther King – who Barry once worked with.

(Barry as head of Pride, Inc., working on D.C. impoverished housing in 1970 before he entered public office. Photo courtesy Henry David Rosso.)

Barry was a longtime warrior for civil rights long before he came to D.C., a fact acknowledged by President Obama upon news of his death.

“Marion was born a sharecropper’s son, came of age during the Civil Rights movement and became a fixture in D.C. politics for decades,” Obama said. “As a leader with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Marion helped advanced the cause of civil rights for all. During his decades in elected office in D.C., he put in place historic programs to lift working people out of poverty, expand opportunity and begin to make real the promise of home rule.”

I watched as Barry fought to bring the city the respect it deserved.

In his recently published autobiography “Mayor for Life: The Incredible Story of Marion Barry, Jr.” he flaunts – in his flamboyant style – his accomplishments, but also acknowledges his foibles.

There was no doubt that the “Mayor for Life” was a controversial character.

But, the District of Columbia is a better city for having had him in its midst.

There was no doubt that the “Mayor for Life” was a controversial character.

But, the District of Columbia is a better city for having had him in its midst.

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