FOR YEARS in the latter part of his eventful life, Marion S. Barry Jr. was something of a figure of fun, at least to many people who didn’t live in the District of Columbia. He never lost a passionate constituency of admirers in this city. But for many, it became all too easy to forget, as this city’s four-term mayor went from one crisis or scandal to another over his long career, that there was a time when he was a widely admired leader in his adopted home town.
When Mr. Barry came to Washington in 1965 as a fervent and experienced young civil rights activist working with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the District was not really — to use an old cliche — a sleepy Southern town, but it was a deeply segregated place. Most of the better jobs were reserved for white men — not only office work but positions such as bus driver, fireman and policeman. A visit to the homicide squad down at police headquarters would find a dozen detectives at work, perhaps one of them African American. A visit to the newsroom of any of the city’s three big daily newspapers would find much the same situation. Neighborhoods had their “citizens’ associations” (white) and “civic associations” (black), organized in separate federations. The District was governed by three commissioners — traditionally white men, though an African American had recently been named to one of the positions — appointed by the president and closely monitored by Congress, where Southern legislators had the power of seniority and an overbearing interest in racial matters.
In short, the town was ripe for an outside agitator, and Mr. Barry was a good one. He had a biography that would put to shame most political candidates’ compelling tales of hardscrabble childhoods: born in 1936, one of 10 children in a sharecropping family in Mississippi — that is to say a family that lived under a system of perpetual debt that was not far removed from slavery. His mother took the family to Memphis to escape an essentially hopeless place, and Mr. Barry soon showed his talent. He became one of Tennessee’s first black Eagle Scouts, and went on to earn a college degree and then a master’s in chemistry.
Nevertheless, he experienced many of the racial insults and indignities of the time, became a SNCC activist and was dispatched to the nation’s capital, where he quickly made a name for himself. It wasn’t hard to understand why. He spoke persuasively and combined an undeniable “militancy” (the word was coming into vogue then) with the ability to appeal to a large segment of the city’s population — black and white, moderate and angry. It was a time for change, and Mr. Barry was a natural leader, one of the most gifted politicians — local or national — this city has ever seen.
He ran for local office in 1971 , winning a school board seat, moved on to the D.C. Council in 1974, and was elected mayor four years after that, with this newspaper’s endorsement. Mr. Barry was not, as some joked, “Mayor for Life,” but he was pretty much this city’s mayor for the ’80s, and during his long tenure he showed both the best and the worst of Marion Barry. He started as a smart young reformer, made progress in some areas and had some serious setbacks in others, such as finance, crime, corruption and personal morality. The problems with city governance weren’t all Mr. Barry’s fault — it was a terrible time here, with crack cocaine and homicidal drug gangs wreaking havoc in many neighborhoods — but they coincided with the mayor’s personal decline, which reached its nadir in 1990 with his arrest on drug charges and subsequent six months’ imprisonment.
Mr. Barry came back, incredibly enough, winning the mayoralty in 1994 but then serving a term during which he was sharply constrained by Congress and the city’s chief financial officer. His final years on the D.C. Council were marked by a series of mishaps and misdemeanors and some cases of outright race-baiting and demagoguery. But he maintained to the end a strong appeal to a sizable part of the city’s African American residents, who admired his style and his assertiveness against the D.C. establishment. One of the annual highlights of his late years was attendance at commencement exercises for the University of the District of Columbia. There, families from Washington’s working class — waiting impatiently to cheer the young person who might be bringing home the family’s first college degree — would offer tepid applause for the endless introductions of various dignitaries. Tepid, that is, until Mr. Barry was introduced, at which point a great cheer would go up from the crowd and the beaming former mayor would stride before them, taking his place in the spotlight.
Those people will mourn Marion Barry today, but they should not be alone. All in this city who knew him over his half-century here ought to mourn the great promise lost over the course of a life that conformed in many ways to the dictionary definition of ancient tragedy, and recall with admiration the man who helped knock down barriers that are almost unimaginable to those of a younger generation.