Marion Barry compares Phil Mendelson to ‘white southerners’ who opposed civil rights

December 17, 2012

Barry is adopting a scorched-earth policy in the battle for ex-offender rights. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

Who says the art of the letter is dead? The most heated rhetoric in District politics these days isn’t being tossed around on the D.C. Council dais, but rather in the correspondence of member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8).

Barry’s crusade to win broad legal protections for formerly incarcerated criminals who have completed their sentences has prompted a series of fiery missives. 

Earlier this month, he fired a letter off to his colleagues accusing the D.C. Chamber of Commerce’s president and CEO, Barbara Lang, of being a traitor to her African-American race and her organization’s heritage for opposing his ex-offender legislation. That prompted an equally fiery reply from top Chamber board members calling Barry’s personal attacks outrageous and out of line.

Barry also directed a Dec. 5 memo to Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) taking issue with his opposition to the bill: “It is my firm belief, that people like you and others that are in opposition to this legislation, do not believe that an ex-offender’s debt to society is ever paid,” Barry wrote.

Now, in a letter sent Monday, Barry has renewed his attacks on Mendelson, particularly criticizing the chairman for opposing Barry’s current bill despite voting in favor of a previous version in 2006. That version passed the council, but then-Mayor Anthony A. Williams vetoed the bill, and the council did not move to override it.

It should be noted that Mendelson’s 2006 support was limited to a single first-reading vote, according to council records. He voiced “serious concerns” in a committee meeting and attempted to table the bill, according to a report. And on the bill’s final reading, he was one of two members to oppose the bill.

Those facts aside, Barry in his letter portrays Mendelson’s lack of support for his current bill as a serious betrayal — a betrayal, in fact, worthy of racially charged rhetoric that invokes the name of various civil rights icons:

I saw you at Lawrence Guyot’s Memorial service on Saturday. You heard of his courage, the courage of others, and the fight to get Black people registered to vote. You heard of several people being killed in this quest, including Medgar Evers of the NAACP. You heard about Lawrence Guyot being beaten and jailed. You heard about the massive courage of Fannie Lou Hammer [sic] because she dared to register to vote. You heard about many other atrocities that White people put upon Black people. They were just fighting for the right to vote. I wonder what you were thinking while hearing all this. Yet, just recently, you led efforts and led other Councilmembers to vote against a bill which would begin to give returning citizens the right to file discrimination charges against bigoted people who are opposed to their efforts to seek legitimate employment.

And then there’s this even more explicit attack:

The other reason I hear you state [for opposing Barry's bill]  is that the business community is opposed to the legislation. You sound like the white southerners who opposed the public accommodation bill and the Civil Rights Act. Mr. Chairman you are a decent human being with a good heart. What went wrong on this bill? How dare you vote against a bill which would give rights to returning citizens?

The drama is likely to spill into one last D.C. Council meeting. Mendelson has a less-sweeping bill to help reintegrate ex-offenders that will be up for a final vote Tuesday, and Barry said he intends to move an amendment that would make that bill look more like his own.

Mike DeBonis covers local politics and government for The Washington Post. He also writes a blog and a political analysis column that runs on Fridays.
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Mike DeBonis · December 17, 2012