Leaving admiration and envy in his wake, he has risen far above what his earliest peers predicted for him as a bashful, raggedly dressed high school student. Yet they are confused by the roles he has played since then - respected student civil rights activist, threatening "street dude," cunning politician. And now - District of Columbia mayoral candidate.
Marion Barry, taking a little good advice from many along the way, has pulled himself up from a directionless childhood of stark poverty to an at-large City Council seat.
Yet his easy switch from role to role has left not only his friends but a significant number of the city's voters perplexed and leery, if not openly hostile to him, putting his bid to become mayor in jeopardy.
Born the "underdog" in the dregs of rural poverty in the Mississippi town of Itta Bena, Barry has eagerly claimed such political prizes as president of the Board of Education and a City Council seat. Unsatisfied, his long arms now strain for the latest plum, even though he knows he could have had with the council chairmanship with far less effort.
"A lot of people tried to persuade me to run for council chairman, but I was not interested," Barry said. "There is a good chance I won't run for reelection (to the council in 1980) if I lose the mayoral race. I don't feel I can do enough (on the council)."
From the firebrand dashiki-clad militant, who became a lightning rod symbol of black rage, he has easily made the transformation into a groomed and restrained city politician. Looked at over a 13-year drama-strewn personal history that parallels the city's own political growth, the multifaceted images of Marion Barry are difficult to reconcile.
Tall and, as one female admirer says, ruggedly handsome in a "rough, yaw macho way," Barry has changed in many ways, but his walk has remained the same - a bopping stride capped by broad shoulders that swing powerfully back and forth like a shadow-boxing prizefighter.
The contradictions are many. An uncompromisingly harsh critic of the city's police force for 11 years, he is now openly supported by the police union in his mayoral bid. After branding the staid Metropolitan Washington Board of Trade as "moneylord merchants," he is now receiving a modicum of financial campaign contributions from some of its members.
The city's white population viscerally detested Barry as a rabble-rousing activist for much of his career here. Now he enjoys considerable support from them. And The Washington Post, which in 1966 editorialized that Barry "deliberately flouted the law," last week endorsed him for mayor.
The causes that Barry has espoused - black Power, home rule and job training for the "street dudes" - no longer dominate the headlines. The city has changed. And Barry has shifted with the times.
"I'm a situationist," said Barry. "I do what is necessary for the situation. If I walked around in a dashiki now, people would say I'm crazy."
Barry's father, a Mississippi farm laborer died suddenly when Marion Barry was four. His deeply religious mother, Mattie Cummings, moved with her son and younger daughter to the urban poverty of Memphis a year later. There she remarried and gave birth to the three more children, all girls. The large family of 10 was crowded into a small, four-room "shotgun-house" in the south Memphis slums. Marion Barry slept on the couch and was the first one up each morning to chop wood for the stove.
"To make ends meet," his 61-year-old mother recalled, she, Barry and her older daughters traveled to Arkansas and Mississippi each spring to chop cotton.
Barry remembers it vividly: "Hot sun. Always thirsty. And 30 cents an hour for 10 hours work. Three dollars a day."
Family, friends and former teachers said Barry was an above average students who came from a home that always had a Bible but few other books. It wasn't until his junior year at Booker T. Washington High School that he started thinking about college at the insistence of a friend. "I didn't even know anything about college," Barry said.
That friend, William J. (Hawk) Hawkins, described Barry as "a plain, bashful guy" who bloomed late. "Barry was the sort of nondescript person whom you expected to finish high school, then go out and get a job," said Hawkins, today an elementary school principal in Memphis.
A scholarship enabled Barry to attend LeMoyne College, a small black school of 450 students with century-old red brick buildings dominating a small campus in a rundown part of Memphis.
It was there that the quiet, self-conscious, Barry, whose shoes were stuffed with cardboard to fill their holes, began to change slowly.
One of the first changes in Barry's life involved his name. "He was the only student without" a middle name, said Gloria Driver, one of his sisters. So Barry picked one out of a language textbook, becoming Marion Shepilovk Barry.
In his sophomore year, Barry began to argue with his Aplha Phi Alpha fraternity brothers that segregation was unjust. "He was very vocal and very hotheaded," remembered Ulysses (Squah) Campbell, a Le Moyne student at the time.
"He didn't care if we said that segregation was the way it is," Campbell said." "He'd say it wasn't right and we ought to do something."
Barry's first calculated confrontation with "the way it is" catapulted him into the public spotlight. It came in the spring of his senior year, 1958: He demanded the resignation of a white segregationist, former Memphis Mayor Walter Chandler, from Le Moyne's board of trustees. At the time, Barry was president of the Le Moyne chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Chandler has just defended the continued segregation of Memphis' bus system, saying it was better for blacks to be concerned with "the eradication of diseases that underime them mentally and physically."
The Memphis Press-Scimitar, one of the two mahor newspapers, headlined Barry's demand. Hollis F. Price, the black president of LeMoyne, considered expelling the B plus student because he feared that "the college would have to suffer the consequences" of his activixm.
"Marion was a bright young man and he thought he was sort of a messiah," said the 74-year-old Price, who retired from LeMoyne eight years ago. "At the time, I did not have much faith in his judgement. I did not understand."
Roy Wilkins, the NAACP's executive secretary, came to Barry's support at a public rally before 3,000 cheering people, the Press-Schimitar reported. The expulsion threat evaporated, and Barry was marked as a leader.
After LeMoyne, Barry moved into the thick of the student sit-in demonstrations in segregated Nashville while studying for a master's degree in chemistry at Fisk University. In April 1960 he was elected the first national chairman of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) at the civil rights group's first meeting in Atlanta.
Then it was on the University of Tennessee in Knoxville for doctoral studies in chemistry in 1961, a period in which he was in and out of Mississippi organizing voter registration among rural blacks. A brief two-year marriage to a woman from Nashville gradually fizzled between studies and civil rights activity.
Barry was finding it difficult to study. "SNCC was getting into some exciting things," he said. He dropped out of school and went back to Mississippi, then came to Washington in 1965, planning to stay but two years.
The nation's capital was quiescent. Its black citizens, the city's majority, were unaroused. Congress was in charge of the day-to-day operations of government in Washington. The White House appointed its leaders. The issue was clear to Barry: Washington was a major city whose black majority had no vote.
Barry launched his attack, accusing "racist" congressmen of holding Washington residents in "politicial slavery" in collusion with the "moneylord merchants" of the Board of Trade while that group's members went to House District Committee chairman former Rep. John L. McMillan (D-S.C.), to lobby for a share of the city's business.
As leader of his newly created "Free D.C. Movement," Barry, supported by Walter E. Fauntroy, who later became the city's delegate to Congress, demanded that all retail stores display an orange and black "Free D.C." sticker in their windows, make financial contributions to publicize the home rule drive, or face picketing and boycotts by black residents.
McMillan, an implacable foe of self-government for Washington, called a special meeting of the District Committee. City prosecutors were called to testify, and he had them read him the law on "Interference with Commerce by Threats or Violence" of the U.S. Code.
"Trying to extort money cannot be tolerated in the nation's capital," McMillan said at the end of the hearing. "I now feel that we have the law enforcement to take care of it." At the same time the Board of Trade called Barry's tactics "immoral, un-American and unjust."
Barry retreated. The movement was not "demanding that a merchant give one penny," he said then. But the "extortion" label - and later charges of "blackmail" - stuck as Barry continued to attempt to force merchants to display the stickers.
Barry, acknowledging his "hoodlum" image that dates from that period, excuses himself today. "We were trying to raise issues in a dramatic way," he said. "I never personally, and I don't know of any of our followers who did either, ask any of them for money."
There were subtle but important changes going on, however. Black power militant Stokely Carmichael was now national chairman of SNCC. The white liberals, who had supported SNNCC's earlier efforts with cash were being ignored or frigtened away. White college students were turning toward the anti-Vietnam War movement. Barry shifted also.
In summer of 1967, Barry, Rufus (Catfish) Mayfield and Barry's second wife, Mary Treadwell, founded Pride Inc. with a U.S. Labor Department grant.
Pride was designed to train the thousands of hard-core unemployed "street dudes" in Washington in housing renovation, automobile mechanics, street cleaning, and over-the-counter retail sales.
Barry, the scowling Pride spokesman purposely cultivated a "street dude" image for himself. It was an image that frightened many Washington residents.
But even Barry was frigtened. "I carried a .32 (handgun) in the early days of Pride," he said recently. "You never knew what to expect from those guys. They carried guns like other people carry cigarettes."
One person intricately familiar with Pride's beginnings said Barry never ran the administrative or corporate efforts of Pride. Instead, Barry's function, that person said, was to deal with the mercurial "street dudes" and stand out front as spokesman.
Barry began to feel then, the person said, that people were starting to take him seriously as a "spokesman for the underprivileged."
Barry was already looking for new ground, and when the second elections for the city's school board rolled around in 1971, "he jumped for it," one close friend said. Barry says he was "pushed into running."
He was elected to the board, which was fractured by bitter public fights, on a pledge "to put ego last and put political operations behind." He was immediately chosen president of the board and won reelection to the position for two more years.
Barry shifted the board's meetings to each of the city's eight wards on a rotating monthly basis. He began to broaden his constituency by establishing ties to Washington Teachers Union president William Simons and supporting a 17 percent increase in teachers' salaries.
"Marion was still learning administration then," said one of his personal advisers. "It was on-the-job-training."
Barry said he inherited a "mountain" of difficulties when he took over the school board presidency. " I kept chipping away at it (and) had made a significant dent in" the school system's problems, he said. "But I didn't solve all the things that I wanted to do."
Nonetheless, it was his support of Barbara Sizemore, the controversial city school superintendent who was fired in 1975, that clinched for her the job of superintendent in August 1973 when the school board was seeking a replacement of Hugh J. Scott. Barry had been urging that Scott's contract be renewed, but he backed off quietly in the face of an effort by some board members to unseat him as board president.
According to one friend, Barry was already thinking about new challenges. "Marion told me in 1972 that a school board is a graveyard for a politician," said George H. Brown, a lawyer who was then serving his first term on the school board in Memphis.
Brown, a childhood friend of Barry's now serving his second Memphis school board term, said Barry told him, "You just can't win on any issue." You know, he was right."
In 1974, Washington was granted limited home rule which proved for the first elected City Council and mayor in more than a century. Barry, halfway through his third term as school board president, leaped into the field of Democratic candidates, winning an at-large seat. He was reelected in 1976.
Barry promptly took the chairmanship of the council's finance and revenue committee on the advice of Robert B. Washington Jr., a lawyer who lobbies the council and is a key political intimate of Council Chairman Sterling Tucker, one of Barry's principal opponents in the mayoral race.
"Marion thought a housing committee would have the highest visibility," lawyer Washington said, "but I told him he'd get more points if he took finance and revenue." Barry said he listened.
Around the District Building, Barry's stewarship and staff choices for the finance and revenue committee are given high ratings, even by critics. "He wasn't afraid to hire people brighter than he is," said one of the mayor's close advisers.
As head of one of the two most powerful council committees, which is rivaled in importance only by the budget committee, he deals with the city's finances. Barry has seized the opportunity to court members of the Board of Trade, a favorite target for his barbs in the past.
In 1975, Barry was instrumental in defeating a one percent gross receipts tax on all city businesses proposed by Mayor Walter E. Washington, his third principal opponent in this year's mayoral race, and vehemently opposed by the entire business community.
"The Board of Trade is just another constituency," Barry said. "As an at large councilman, I try to represent all constituencies in this city. Business is just one of them."
Barry also claims credit for proposing the real estate property tax assessment reduction, a measure of keen interest to city homeowners. The council ended up passing legislation that combined separate property tax cut plans proposed by Barry and the mayor.
Barry was a bitter enemy of the police force until he began thinking seriously of running for mayor two years ago. He subsequently pushed through two pay rises for the city's 4,200-man force in 1976 and 1977 and Local 442 of the International Brotherhood of Police Officers, the collective bargaining agent for the police officers, reciprocated by endorsing Barry's mayorial bid.
Just over two years ago, Barry and his second wife, Treadwell, separated and subsequently were divorced. In February of this year, Barry married Effi Cowell in the living room of the small, two-storey renovated town house the Barrys rent on Capitol Hill.
A light-skinned black woman with Spanish features, Effi Barry, 34, met Barry at the Bicentennial City Celebration Festival in June 1976 when he was campaigning for reelection to the council. "He just came up and introduced himself" and, after a short conversation, asked for her phone number. "Truthfully, I was not impressed," Effi Barry said.
But Barry pursued her, calling her several times and they finally got together.
The tough-talking, charismatic Barry the public knows differs from the private Barry, according to aides and his wife, who describes him as having the personality of a "pussycat." His private life, she says, is without ornamentation. The Barry's home is simply decorated. His tax returns over the years show that the most he has ever earned was $28,015 as a council member in 1977. His financial statement lists his personal assets at $14,016, a figure that includes a 1972 Volvo automobile, all household furniture and jewelry, and $450 in savings.
But some of his "simplicity" is also seen as liability. His "down home" Memphian speech, for instance, which results in such mispronounciations as "chilren" instead of "children" causes his supporters to cringe and his critics to laugh.
His critics - and Barry has many - say his single-minded devotion to advancement leads him to use and then discard people, a trait they call "unpolished" and indicative of a lack of "middle class manners." He is also seen by some as arrogant.
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"Barry is a person in motion, and some of his followers go part of the way and some go all the way," said James O. Gibson, president of the new Harambee House hotel and a key Barry adviser. "And I'm sure he might hold his teacup differently from some people."
"COCKY? I certainly hope he is," Gibson continued. "I don't see that as a flaw in anybody."
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Last week, straight from a two-hour campaign walk in Northeast Washington one hot afternoon, Barry strode into his campaign headquarters for a brief rest before a tight schedule of night appearances. Mary Lampson, who just recently quit as executive assistant to Council member Polly Shackleton (D-Ward 3), brought Barry a spiraling frozen custard cone to cool him off.
"I've always been the underdog in this race," Barry said as he leaned back in his swivel chair, undaunted. "People said I wouldn't make it this far. But I've done the impossible, which is the way it's been for me all my life."