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'A Giant for This City'

By Marion Barry Jr.
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, March 29, 1997; Page C01

The first time I ever met up with Dave Clarke was way back in the 1960s, over at New Bethel Baptist Church in Shaw one night, sometime after the march on Selma. It was a civil rights meeting, and of course Dave was there. He really stood out in those days.

Not just because he was big -- he was white.

There we all were, wearing our dashikis, had the Afros, talking for hours about black power. And there was Dave, kind of awkward in his movements, clothes never fit, but you could tell he was intensely committed to the cause. And he did it with such ease.

He grew up in segregated Washington, but he never was self-conscious about his race, never tried to come off as some kind of Great White Hope. People like that don't last in the politics of this city, and that's exactly why he did.

He never let up in the community. I remember back in 1969, there was a program to try to make police officers more sensitive to the black community. The idea was to put them in a room, not let them leave, and get activists like me to scream and yell in their faces with the language you hear on the street. Back then, probably about 95 percent of the police were white. So it could get tough. Dave was there, too. Now and then, he would step in, calm things down a bit, tell me to ease up a bit with the language.

He and I each ran for the city council the first time there was an election, back at the start of home rule in 1974. This was the strange thing about his race: He was running in Ward 1, which is so racially diverse, and you can divide it right up the middle with 16th Street. Whites tend to live on the west side of that line, and blacks and Hispanics tend to live on the east side. It was expected that he would have a hard time in the east, but it turned out exactly the opposite. And you saw that throughout his career, anytime that he ran across the whole city to be council chairman.

Black people in Washington knew his history. They had their differences with him from time to time, and I certainly did, but you knew what he stood for -- civil rights, for the poor, for jobs, and for a kind of liberalism you just don't see too much of anymore. And he understood the aspirations and the culture of black people.

Dave was always such a stickler. He would call me up all the time, screaming about something. Sometimes I would just drop the phone and hang up on him. But then he would call right back -- say something like, "You told me you would have that to my office by Thursday, and it's Friday."

He was so intense about his work, always so serious on the dais down at the city council or around town at community meetings. I think a lot of the voters appreciated that in him. Even if you didn't like everything he did, he was honest and he worked very hard. I can't remember too many times when he had a big laugh about something.

I would tease him sometimes about his clothes. I would tell him to take some time out, go get his suit cut right, be a little fashionable. But he would always say to me, "That's just not important," and get right back to some issue that was bothering him.

I remember we traveled together with a delegation to Southeast Asia in the early 1970s. In Bangkok, he actually bought a few of those leisure suits -- they were popular at the time -- and had them tailored just for him. He said that now I would have to leave him alone. But the suits didn't last very long, and he was back to being the same old Dave.

I think it was hard for him over the last few years on the council as chairman. So much had changed from when he had been chairman the first time. The liberal days of the civil rights movement were over, and all I think that he felt he was doing sometimes was cutting the budget, cutting social programs, cutting things he really cared about.

The transition was difficult, it hurt. I remember him saying, "Marion, I feel like I've lost my identity. People only know me now as Mr. Chairman." He felt like he wasn't identified with a cause anymore, with being a champion of the poor or the downtrodden.

He agonized over his role, whether he was doing the work that God wanted him to do in the city. It did not come easy for Dave to talk about those feelings, but we had weekly fellowships with a few other people around town, and eventually he would talk about his doubts once we all got in the room and left our titles at the door. At some point early in his life, he had thought about becoming a minister, and I think some of that always stayed with him in his heart. He was so committed to the people of the city, had such an insatiable appetite for self-government in the District.

He was there from the start fighting for home rule -- the protests, the hearings, everything. He had such a deep passion for preserving [the D.C. School of Law] and I think it was because he really believed that law was a way to empower the black community. He had graduated from Howard University Law School, after all.

One thing about Dave was that he was so consistent -- to the end. I heard that in his last few months, while he was over at Georgetown Hospital, and once his health really started to fail and he was losing a sense of where he was, he started asking the nurses to help him write legislation. That's how Dave was. He was a giant for this city.

D.C. Mayor Marion Barry spoke yesterday with Washington Post Staff Writer Rene Sanchez. This article was condensed from that conversation.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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