We know much, and will soon know much more, about the stated positions of the candidates for mayor of the District on issues affecting the city. What we do not know, to a surprising degree, is who they are--that is, where they came from, what they remember or think is important about the way they got here. In recent interviews with Michael Barone, the five principal candidates for the Democratic nomination talked about their early lives--personal and political.
To hear Marion Barry, the mayor of Washington, tell it today, growing up in Memphis, Tenn., wasn't so bad. Memphis was, to be sure, one of the most segregated cities in America: just a few miles north of the Mississippi state line, a flat city, stretching inland from the banks of the Mississippi River. Blacks could go to the zoo only one day a week: "You did it, you just didn't like it." In the segregated movie theaters, where blacks could sit only in the balconies, marion Barry and his friends "used to take empty Coke cups, squash them and throw them over the rail. They stopped selling it. Then we'd bring our own cups and throw them. The ushers would come in, shining their lights, and we'd just say, 'Who's throwin' cups? We don't see any cups.'"
Statistically, Marion Barry did not seem to be a candidate for success: he was raised in a segregated city, in poverty, and he says he didn't have any obvious role models. His mother worked as a domestic, then got a job in a meat-packing factory, then lost the job when the plant closed, and went back to domestic work. She told her son he should be the best at whatever he did. He used to hold down several jobs, delivering the Commercial Appeal in the morning and the Press-Scimitar in the afternoon, bagging groceries, chopping in the fields across the river in Arkansas.
He attended LeMoyne College in Memphis, a black school that has never had the prestige of colleges such as Howard or Fisk. As a chemistry major, he had little extra time, but still got involved in student government his first year and in the college NAACP chapter his junior year.
This was during the 1950s, when segregation was being challenged in the courts; and one day, in a bus segregation case in Memphis, the lawyer for the city, Walter Chandler, made some derogatory remarks about blacks. Chandler was also on the board of LeMoyne, and Marion Barry wrote a letter demanding that Chandler either apologize or quit. LeMoyne's president could not have been pleased to see the letter quoted in a story in the next morning's Commercial Appeal. "They wanted to put me out of school." There was a rally at which Martin Luther King Jr. appeared; Barry stayed in school, and the buses were eventually desegregated. Marion Barry had his first taste of the civil rights movement--and of success.
Later he participated in sit-ins in Nashville, worked toward a chemistry PhD at the University of Tennessee (demonstrating afternoons and evenings, working in the lab late at night), and participated in the 1963 March on Washington and the 1964 Summer Project in Mississippi. In 1965, he came to Washington as director of SNCC; in 1967, he started Pride; in 1971, he was elected to the school board. He rememers that he has been in jail a couple of dozen times--and in the same breath mentions with relish that the governor of Mississippi has invited him to spend the night in the Governor's Mansion.
Marion Barry also remembers being shot, when he was taken hostage by Hanafi Moslems; every six or eight weeks he has dreams about guns. But he quickly changes the subject, to the time a drunk called him at home at 3 a.m., complaining about city services. He got the information the man wanted a few days later and called him back--at 3 o'clock in the morning.