In Ward 8, Marion Barry discusses his life at book-signing event for his autobiography


Dr. Doris A.M. Thomas has a moment with Marion Barry after getting her book signed at the event. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

D.C. Council member Marion Barry stood before a packed auditorium Monday night, one of many crowds he has addressed recently since the release of his autobiography, “Mayor for Life: The Incredible Story of Marion Barry, Jr.”

He talked about growing up, the son of sharecroppers, in a shotgun house with no running water under a tin roof that danced when it rained. He spoke of his mother, Mattie Cummings, who worked as a domestic and taught him what courage was. “In the South, they called domestics by their first name. They would call her Mattie. She would tell them, ‘By the way, my name is Mrs. Cummings.’ ”

He told them of how his town of Itta Bena, Miss., had “whites only” and “coloreds only” water fountains, how he decided that he was “going to try some white water” and how life in the Mississippi Delta gave him the resilience to withstand “political opposition” from an establishment he said sought to bring him down.

And the crowd cheered him on.

After two weeks of book signings, including stops at the National Press Club and an interview with Oprah Winfrey, Barry came home to Ward 8, a place where he has consistently received political support. Here, he was not just the infamous mayor caught on camera smoking crack at the Vista Hotel, but the man who made good, creating jobs for the poor and opportunity for the city’s black middle class.

Barry was introduced at the old Congress Heights school on Martin Luther King Avenue in Southeast as a symbol of “a new breed of black politicians — brash, unapologetic, ascending on the heels of black power.”

Denise Rolark-Barnes, publisher of the Washington Informer, which sponsored the forum as a kickoff for the newspaper’s 50th anniversary celebrations, asked the audience members who had received summer jobs while Barry was mayor to stand. There were more than 100. “It does matter who is mayor,” Barry explained.

When Barry first took office, he said, the city’s recorder of deeds office was the only agency with a large number of black workers. By his second term, he said, he had brought in a “significant number of blacks in city government, laying the groundwork for an emerging black class.”

Barry began his talk by thanking people in the audience. “I saved the best for last: Cora Masters Barry. We’ve been friends almost 50 years. We are separated,” Barry said. “Happily separated.”

The audience exploded in laughter. “Cora has been a rock, demonstrating what a strong black woman can do with a strong black man.”

During the wide-ranging discussion, Barry talked about his recent illness but is better now. It didn’t affect my brain: My brain is still sharp.”

Rolark-Barnes asked Barry to recount the night of his 1990 arrest after an FBI sting in which he was videotaped smoking crack cocaine. “When you left there that evening and you had to sit down with [then-wife] Effi, what did you say to her?”

Barry first countered, saying, “I’ve never been convicted of any charge at the Vista,” then continued. “We went home, and her first words were, ‘Are you all right?’ And she hugged me and kissed me. During the trial, she never went home and got on my case about anything. She knew what game they played.”

Barry said his greatest disappointment was “not spending more time with Effi” and his son, Christopher. “I was trying to take care of everybody else.”

At Monday’s gathering, Barry signed books for more than an hour. A long line stretched to the back of the auditorium.

Joni Eisenberg, a WPFW (89.3 FM) radio host and producer of “To Heal DC,” said she attended the book signing because “this week we are commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Summer. Marion Barry was part of that movement. ”

Chuck Hicks, director of the D.C. Black History Celebration, was there because, he said, “what makes Barry extraordinary is he is human. He has his faults. But when he falls down, he gets back up.”

When Ayo Handy-Kendi, founder of Black Love Day, got her book signed, she gave Barry a big hug. “I have watched Marion go through trials and tribulation,” she said. “He is a black man who continues to rise no matter who comes at him — no matter the circumstance.”

DeNeen L. Brown is an award-winning staff writer at The Washington Post who has covered night police, education, courts, politics and culture.
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