A Look Back Before Moving On
By Courtland Milloy
"Overhead," Barry will shout, warning that he is about to wind up and knock the fuzz off a lobbed ball.
"How are you feeling today?" I asked the mayor as he stepped from his chauffeured Town Car.
"Just great," he replied. "Don't have much time to play, though. Got a tight schedule."
He grinned slyly, as if I wasn't supposed to know that he was going to declare that his days as mayor were numbered. "Got this speech to give, you know."
We were at some tennis courts on Mississippi Avenue SE, not far from Barry's home. "Cora's courts," I call them, after his wife, who helped spearhead one of the few first-class tennis facilities in a predominantly poor, black part of any city in the United States.
Children on their way to school and parents on their way to the bus stop paused at the court fence, pointed and waved.
"That's the mayor," a mother told her daughter.
The girl's eyes lit up. "That's Marion Barry?"
"Marion Barry," a schoolboy said proudly, using his arm to imitate a Barry forehand swing.
Barry was pleased to see the children headed off to school. But he was downright ecstatic at the sight of so many black men heading off to work.
"It's a basic thing in life," said Barry, a college chemistry major, as if about to reveal one of the great secrets of the universe. "The only way you can survive in this world, buy food, put a roof over your head, is to make money or take money. One of the things that makes me the most happy is knowing that I helped provide the opportunities for so many people to make it legitimately."
During his news conference, Barry would repeat some of the things he had said to me earlier, such as how there had been "pockets of jobs that African Americans need not apply for" when he came to the District.
"There were positions in finance and revenue, in engineering, water and sewer, health and motor vehicles where blacks could only go so high," he said. "We changed that. We made it possible for a whole lot of people in Ward 4 and 5 to buy their own homes because they were given opportunities to get $40,000-a-year and $50,000-a-year jobs."
At the news conference, this was mentioned, almost nonchalantly, as just one of many accomplishments during his years in public service. But the first time I heard him say it, there was disappointment in his voice that so many people did not seem to understand how important equal employment opportunities are to black people.
"You listen to some of these Republicans over the last three years, and what they say goes beyond personal disrespect towards me," Barry said. "It is a collective disrespect of all citizens, a disregard for humanism, just when you think we had gotten past much of that racist history, and I think a lot of it is racial."
"Why?" I asked.
"Because if you've ever been there, you know it when you see it and when you hear it," Barry said emphatically. "When I was growing up in the South, it wasn't just the Jim Crow signs, which I saw all the time, or having to move to the back of the bus, which I had to do, or sitting in the colored-only balcony at the movies, where I had to go. When they talked to you, there was an unmistakably disrespectful tone that was used -- and with Faircloth, [Rep. Thomas M.] Davis and [Rep. Charles H.] Taylor, all white men from the South -- I have heard it, over and over again, and I recognize it for what it is."
Barry had run hard during the tennis game, which was halted while the score was tied during an unfinished set. He had to finish writing that speech, but it was already pretty clear what he was going to say.
He had offered up lots of clues, long before he showed up at the podium in the D.C. Council chamber yesterday. The most telling sign, however, had come a few days before, during another tennis match.
As we were on the sidewalk heading our separate ways, a woman walked by but continued to stare at the mayor.
"What's your name?" Barry asked, as I had heard him do dozens of times over the years. Often, before the person could answer, he'd introduce himself: "I'm Marion Barry."
One of his favorite ice-breaker questions has always been, "Where do you work?" Nine times out of 10, the people would say the D.C. government, and Barry would proceed to impress them by naming the head of their department, sometimes even their supervisor.
To hear someone say that they were unemployed would cause Barry to react as if that person had been mugged.
"Call me," I'd heard him say time and time again. "Let's see what we can do."
But this time was different. The woman gave her name and said she was out of work. She kept staring at him, her eyes pleading for a job.
Barry's lips moved, reflexively, as if trying to say, "Call me." But instead out came, "I'm sorry," after which a look of deep disappointment washed over his face.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company