Young Activist Became A Believer in Barry
By Vanessa Williams
But few black entrepreneurs got any city work from the predominantly white bureaucracy that doled out public dollars.
Heading up the Minority Business Opportunity Commission was not Courtland Cox's first choice when he was asked to join the administration of newly elected Mayor Marion Barry. Cox, who had known Barry since their days in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and had worked on the mayor's campaign, had always been restless for action.
He remembered in a recent interview that when he first met Barry, during a meeting in Atlanta for SNCC, he wasn't immediately inspired. Barry was a fund-raiser for SNCC, and Cox, a political science major at Howard University, wasn't impressed. "Why was he raising money to send to Mississippi when Mississippi was right here?" Cox said, recalling the discrimination in Washington at the time.
Over the years, Cox saw Barry move onto the streets, rallying poor D.C. residents. Cox became a believer.
So when Barry asked him to head the minority business program, Cox accepted the challenge. He saw it as a new way to continue the struggle for equal access.
His first major breakthrough was on contracting out trash collection services for city agencies. For years, the same company had been awarded the contract.
Cox said his office directed that the contract be put out for bid under a sheltered market, meaning it would be set aside for a minority firm. The award went to a young black businessman named Dickie Carter, who had been repeatedly rebuffed in his previous attempts to win the bid.
"You would have thought the sky had fallen," Cox said, recalling the reaction from some in the business community. The firm that had the contract snatched its trash bins off the street, he said, unwilling to wait for the new company to set up. Cox said city officials worked with Carter to handle the trash until he got his equipment in place.
Carter's business, Urban Service Systems Corp., has grown to include operating transfer stations and providing other disposal services in the District and the suburbs.
Barry also began to push downtown developers to include minorities as subcontractors. And he told Wall Street firms that they wouldn't get District bonds unless they hired black brokers.
"It was an exciting time," Cox recalled. "We were opening up contracts to minorities who had never before had a chance. We believed we were creating space and opportunities for all citizens of the city."
But Cox says he believes that the larger business community resented having to share even a small portion of its potential profits. He believes that sentiment was trumpeted by the news media and fueled investigations by then-U.S. Attorney Joseph DiGenova into contracting abuses.
Cox left D.C. government after Barry's third term and went to the U.S. Commerce Department, where he continues his work in developing minority-owned businesses.
He acknowledged that toward the end of his second term, Barry's administration had lost much of his verve of the early years. And he fears that Barry's tenure will be "viewed through the peephole of an arrest."
Looking back, he wishes his friend had opted out of the mayor's office sooner, but he is proud of helping to grow minority businesses during Barry's first two terms.
"We were young, and we weren't afraid," he said. "We had won where nobody thought we'd win."