When the chauffeur-driven Lincoln carrying D.C. Mayor Marion Barry arrived at Metropolitan Baptist Church Sunday night, the church bell tower sounded. It was not the kind of joyful melody you'd expect at a tribute honoring the mayor, but more an ominous toll that might be used to announce a wake.
"We are not here to eulogize the mayor," the Rev. Robert Hamilton Jr. was quick to point out. But the inspirational words that followed were not enough to halt a drift into deep sadness.
Whether you believed that white people were trying to slip a noose around the neck of yet another black man, as some speakers claimed, or that "a human being had merely made a mistake," as Barry proclaimed, the bottom line, as some people prayed, was that only God could help him now.
In the midst of the testimonials, Barry entered the church leading a buoyant entourage that included his wife, Effi, and his mother, Mattie Cummings. But gone were the chants of "Four More Years," as had been characteristic of appearances before he had admitted smoking crack.
This time, supporters simply called out his name, "Barry" and "Marion," symbolizing the familiarity that had endeared him to so many.
"I'm like a ship being tossed by an angry sea," Barry intoned woefully from the dias. "I wonder what I've done to make this race so hard to run?"
Barry then introduced his mother and told how she had chopped cotton and carried heavy cotton sacks, and how she had lived in a cold, old Mississippi shack, all while carrying him in her womb.
Next came his wife, Effi, who he said had been skeptical about him when they met in 1976, but who had allowed God to join them in holy matrimony two years later. Eventually, Barry conceded, Effi would become "angry, hostile, hurt and disappointed."
By Jan. 21, 1990, he, too, was "feeling the pain, the shame and embarrassment" of being caught smoking crack. But now he was back -- "stronger, more humble, redeemed."
For a mayor who once had carried himself as all-powerful and invincible, Barry was bowed, but not broken. Once a master of marshaling grass-roots support, he now faced a legal arena where the qualities that won his campaigns would be minimized, if not outright negated.
He had stunned supporters last week by admitting he had smoked crack at the Vista Hotel. Yet he was still trying to maintain that he was innocent of charges that he possessed crack. "I'm not going to try to figure it all out," Barry said. "It's not in my hands." But the fact remained, Barry was trapped -- and even those supporters could not help but sense it.
On one hand, he could enter a guilty plea -- but some supporters would interpret that as the racial equivalent of handing his head to "Mr. Charlie," as the white U.S. attorney was derisively referred to. Or he could show courage by going through a moral minefield of a trial -- and risk having revelations of past behavior explode on family and friends.
By all indications, Barry had opted to run the gauntlet -- and Sunday night his supporters fought hard against succumbing to the grim odds against his emerging from a trial unbloodied.
But as hard as they tried, their testimonials could not have sounded more melancholy.
The Rev. James Bevel concluded that Marion Barry was just the latest in a string of black male assassination targets whose name began with "M." A cold-blooded "criminal" justice system was out to get him, Bevel alleged -- and, he said, we already knew what had happened to Malcolm and Martin after the government set its sights on them.
The Rev. Carlton Veazey recalled the sad story of a "Mr. Mule," who had served faithfully until he had been used up.
"They threw Mr. Mule in a ditch, and tried to bury him alive," Veazey said. "But every time dirt was thrown on him, he just shook it off and tried to climb out of the hole . . . "
In some ways, it sounded as if Barry's staunchest supporters had returned the most severe verdict against him -- recalling his life as though it had come to an end.
Rather than peer into an uncertain future, better to take a stroll down memory lane.
"No matter what is written about Marion Barry," Veazey said, setting the tone for the testimonials, "nobody can erase his record."
Barry had been a man of extraordinary good works, his supporters pointed out again and again. "He was my friend," someone declared.
And now he is in God's hands.