With Washington’s landscape and mix of residents having changed so fast since “Mayor For Life” Marion Barry Jr. began his epic rise — and fall, and rise — in the 1960s, many worried the man would become lost to history.
Others hoped he would be.
On Saturday, Barry’s place in the city was underscored for all to see — right in front of the John A. Wilson Building where he served, in eight feet of bronze.
The sculpture of the four-term mayor, 16-year D.C. councilman, civil rights activist and symbol of the successes and struggles of the place still known to some as Chocolate City was unveiled on a windy, sunny afternoon.
The two-hour ceremony on the streets and plaza in front of the Wilson Building marked the first permanent public honor the District has given Barry, a flashy, handsome city pol who is now viewed as both blessing the city with jobs and real civic standing, and cursing it with scandals that included his crack cocaine use — for which he served six months in prison for possession — drinking and abusive treatment of women.
For the hundreds of people who came Saturday, and millions of others over the decades, Barry was a hero, and his actions during his years in office — beginning with his election as mayor in 1978 — were heroic. The majority-black city went from a federal protectorate to independence, and the region became home to a large African American middle class.
And to residents who felt powerless, literally overseen by the ruling elite in federal Washington, Barry was their knight in a black fedora.
“Sometime after Martin Luther King had a dream, and before Barack Obama brought us hope, it was Marion Barry who brought opportunity to Washington, D.C.,” Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) told the crowd. “Marion Barry was bigger than life. He taught us that as long as you’re waking up on this Earth, there can be a comeback.”
The block of Pennsylvania Avenue at 13½ Street NW — where the waving and smiling bronzed resemblance of him now stands — was transformed into a scene of black-power activists with signs, petitions and T-shirts for sale. Nation of Islam members selling newspapers mingled with men in African garb and sanitation workers in orange suits with reflective strips. Reparations advocates crisscrossed with clipboard-wielding residents seeking signatures for their candidates. A gospel choir sang, and when soft piano music was played, someone in the crowd yelled: “Where’s the funk music?”
All 13 members of the D.C. Council attended, as well as the District’s nonvoting member of the House of Representatives, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), and many other present and past city leaders.
“Those who loved him took criticism of him personally because they identified with him,” Norton said to cheers, “and his struggles,” she added to more.
The piece, by Washington area sculptor Steven Weitzman, will be one of three full-body statues in the city of African Americans, according to Bowser’s office. Weitzman is white, a fact that initially jarred Barry’s widow, Cora Masters Barry, because the late mayor spent much of his life focused on black empowerment, starting with his years as a civil rights activist in the 1960s. But after meeting with Weitzman, she changed her mind.
While Barry was a celebrity during his lifetime and still is in death — he was selected in 2007 by a majority of District residents and tourists to debut in the opening of the city’s Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum — his municipal legacy is still being written.
In 2015, Bowser named a summer jobs program after Barry, and a gravestone monument was unveiled in 2016 at Congressional Cemetery in Southeast Washington.
George Derek Musgrove, a University of Maryland historian who focuses on African Americans in politics and co-authored a book about Washington and race that was published last fall, said in an interview this week that Barry is a huge symbol of the struggle to overcome barriers for African Americans, who until recently made up the majority of city residents.
“There is an effort on the part of a lot of folks to forcefully say: ‘Those years that many new residents dismiss as a joke, a low point, in fact those years were really good, and the figure who symbolizes that was Marion Barry,” Musgrove said. “He was the most influential person in D.C.’s political history, point blank, period. Whether you liked him or hated him.”
Musgrove said that, for some, Barry has become more beloved since he and his years of power passed.
“Lots of middle-class black folks who criticized him before, now that the city’s gentrifying, he symbolizes something he couldn’t 20 years ago,” Musgrove said. “He symbolizes black power politics. He symbolizes ‘Chocolate City,’ that era.”
John Cheeks, who heads a group that seeks compensation for descendants of slave owners and of slaves, said while Barry had shortcomings, “he wanted to lift people from poverty, so that’s why people here hail him as a hero.”
“You’d hear your parents talking about how he helped them with things here and there,” said Cheeks, who was in the crowd for the unveiling. “He was an underdog, and being African Americans, we are all here due to slavery and can relate to that.”
The feelings Barry stirs up at the highest levels were on display earlier this week, when WAMU reported that former D.C. mayor Anthony Williams, whom many credit or blame — depending on perspective — with the gentrification of the city, told a public audience at George Washington University: “The man flew the city into the side of a mountain and he gets a statue. I rebuilt the city — come on.”
On Saturday, Williams agreed that Barry should have a statue, but he expressed frustration that, despite all his flaws, the former mayor continues to dominate the city’s landscape in such an outsize way.
“He deserves one because of his work in civil rights. He stood for the reversal of 60 years of discrimination at the federal level and at the city level . . . and stood for self determination for the city,” Williams said.
“He wasn’t a saint, but Thomas Jefferson wasn’t, John F. Kennedy wasn’t. We’re not deifying him, we’re honoring him for what he stood for,” he said. “But 20 years from now, he’ll still be a controversial figure.”
Barry said that he was inspired by his mother’s struggles in the segregated South. He became an activist for civil rights as a teen, and was elected as the first chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in his 20s.
At Saturday’s event, a screen honoring Barry’s life quoted civil rights figure Andrew Young saying Barry “was the first to bring the movement into the politics of Washington, D.C.”
The District’s many new residents are just beginning to learn about and interpret Barry’s legacy for themselves.
Michael Bekesha, a Republican attorney running for the D.C. Council in Ward 6, published an opinion piece this week saying that Barry’s treatment of women should disqualify anyone in the #MeToo era.
“I don’t disagree he made great contributions. However, a statue is not the best way to honor an individual with such a complex history,” Bekesha said in an interview. “Renaming summer youth employment or renaming a building on U Street would be appropriate. The problem with statues is you’re highlighting the individual. Not the individual’s achievements and contributions.”
Among the overwhelmingly black crowd at the Wilson Building were some people of other backgrounds.
Among them was Frank Fritz, 23, who at first hesitated to speak because he felt the day belonged to African Americans.
“A lot of newer faces in D.C. don’t respect him, and we need to learn about him,” said Fritz, a Filipino American who came to the District for college and has since moved to Silver Spring.