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Marion Barry: The Activist Denies He’s Changed

By Milton Coleman
Washington Post Staff Writer
January 2, 1979

This man used to be a fiery social revolutionary in this town, a spokesman for the city’s poor and forgotten, a crude embarrassment to middle-class black people of more moderate persuasions, and a hot-headed nuisance to established powers in the White House, on Capitol Hill and at the District Building.

He stalked the rat-infested slums, the riot-scarred neighborhood and the street corners of the nation’s capital, organizing the city’s economic outcasts. He defied the law when it got in his way. He snubbed the established order and its customs.

Today, a decade later, Marion Barry Jr. becomes mayor of the District of Columbia.

He completes one more mile of an impatient and very personal journey that began in the poor and powerless cotton fields of Mississippi and the shotgun shacks of South Memphis. It takes him today beneath a red-and-white-striped canopy on the steps of the District Building, where a U.S. Supreme Court justice will administer the oath of office.

Power. Real power. The kind of power that can change people’s lives will now be at Barry’s command - a $2-billion-a-year budget, 44,000 workers, and the authority to make things happen for the people of the capital of the western world by signing his name on a piece of paper.

"He’s a person who thinks he’s in the process of fulfilling his destiny, but without a clear understanding of where it’s going to lead him," said Barry’s pastor and longtime friend, the Rev. David H. Eaton of All Souls Unitarian Church. "He sees himself as a person who has a mission, and, whatever he gets into, he’s gonna do the best he can."

The speeches he now gives speak more of federal programs with numbered titles, lowering property taxes and the "bumbling and bungling" of his predecessor than of the outrages of American materialism and injustices of racial discrimination that once were Barry’s major themes.

The person who once talked about remaking society now worries about how to manage his time. The man who once waged his own personal revolution against the racial ills of an entire nation had this to say last week: "If I can just get everybody to answer the telephone right, that’s drastic change, that’s revolution."

For decades, Barry has pushed himself on, reaching always for something higher. Now he is there. He can no longer shout at the established order. He has arrived at the top.

"The question is, can he become a part of the establishment in a frame of reference that’s qualitatively different?" said Ivanhoe Donaldson, Barry’s front-line ally in the social skirmishes of the civil rights movement and the general of Barry’s guerrilla-like political victory in last year’s campaign for mayor.

"I guess what I’m trying to say is that the struggle with Marion is to be a part of the establishment without becoming an apologist for it," Donaldson said.

The dramatic transformation of Barry from chief rabble rouser to consummate politician and now mayor has been confusing to many, including old friends. Several Marion Barrys have flashed across the television screens and marched through the newspaper columns of Washington in the past 13 years. Which one will be the mayor?

Consider these snapshots of Marion Barry's years in the District:

  • After the riots of 1968, Barry told an interviewer that white dominance of business in the inner-city must end. "White people should be allowed to come back only if the majority of the ownership is in the hands of blacks," he said. "That is they should come back and give their experience and their expertise - and then they should leave."
  • Several years later when some of the city's major white businessmen feared that a 1 percent increase in the city's gross receipts tax would be too burdensome, they turned to then-Councilman Barry for help. He saw to it that the tax proposal was defeated.
  • In May 1970, Barry called on city residents to shoot any policemen entering their homes unannounced under the controversial "no knock" provision of a new crime bill. Seven years later, Councilman Barry took the lead in getting prompt cost-of living pay raises for the police force. In his subsequent campaign for mayor, he sought and received the support of the union representing the same city police officers he had once described as an alien "army of occupation."
  • In July 1969, Barry, then operations director of the self-help organization he helped found, Pride Inc., asked blacks not to take part in a national day of celebration to honor the Apollo 11 moon landing. "Why should blacks rejoice when two white Americans land on the moon when white America's money and technology have not even reached" the inner city, Barry asked.
Nine years later, Barry launched his campaign for mayor, his literature emblazoned with the red-white-and-blue stylized replica of the American flag and noting that as a child he had attained the rank of Eagle Scout.

Barry believes he is still trying to solve the same problems and has the same goals. But now there are new, tactics and new strategies, not new principles, he said. All along, he asserts, he has tried to help people.

"I thought that by helping to put together Pride it was gonna help some people. It did. It influenced some peoples' lives. I see them every day on the street, guys I don't even remember . . . The same is true of [my presidency of] the school board and [membership on the city] council.

"That sounds old-fashioned, I guess, in 1978 to say you want to help people, because I guess people don't talk like that anymore. They say, 'Well, he's just jiving.' You know? But I do . . . I haven't changed my position, I just express it differently."

But Barry is also very ambitious. "I've always figured that I ought to be where most people are not, that is, I don't want to be exactly where everybody else is," he said. "That's why I have not been satisfied with staying in one place too long. I want to move ahead and expand my responsibilities and my ability to help."

In his days in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Barry was a shy chemistry student from Memphis whose initial reputation as a civil rights "radical" was based on his public criticism of a powerful white member of the board of Barry's college in Memphis who Barry accused of making "insulting" statements about blacks.

Barry, now 42, was slightly older than many others in the organization. He was a product of the conservative Bible-belt black South and a tiny black college in his hometown, and was also a shy young man by nature. The radical leftist ideological flirtations of many of his counterparts raised on the East Coast were alien to Barry.

"I've always felt that you have to achieve something. You can't just be out there wasting time. You have to be flexible enough to get things done," Barry said.

SNCC leader James Foreman dispatched Barry to Washington in 1965 to raise funds, not hell. But Barry became involved instead in direct action confrontations, including a boycott to protest an increase in bus fares and the "Free D.C." home-rule movement aimed, he said at the time, at liberating the nation's capital from "political slavery."

By 1967, when SNCC was getting heavily involved with 'Black Power" and chairman H. Rap Brown was emerging as a symbol of violent black rebellion, Marion Barry had quit the group. He became what radical movement elites condescendingly termed a "reformist" - he was running a jobs training program, Pride, with funds from the "racist and imperialist" U. S government.

Then elective politics came to the District, and Barly began a slow and methodical climb to the top. School board president in 1971, City Councilman at-large in 1974 and 1976. Now he has become the first black activist to be elected mayor of a major American city.

His background is markedly different from that of other black mayors of major cities in the United States - Mayor Coleman A. Young of Detroit had been a state senator and labor organizer, Mayor Ernest Morial of New Orleans had been a judge, Mayor Thomas Bradley of Los Angeles a policeman and the man Barry replaces, Walter E. Washington, had been a career government bureaucrat.

"I'm a symbol myself of black success, a lot more so than Walter Washington or that generation because they were people who worked into that over a period of time," Barry said. "People see me as a symbol of success because of where I've come from economically and socially."

Barry still stands outside this city's traditional black middle-class, with his "country" sounding mispronunciations - "tuxeder," for instance - instead of tuxedo, his relatively short-term residence in the District and his liberal views on social issues that influential and conservative black churchmen reject - gay rights and marijuana decriminalization for example.

Many in the black middle class did not support Barry in the crucial Democratic primary, preferring instead Washington or City Council Chairman Sterling Tucker, a former director of the moderate Washington Urban League. Some are still wary of the new mayor, fearing among other concerns that he is a tool of liberal, young and affluent whites. These whites make up a significant portion of Barry's political base and some blacks fear whites want to reclaim leadership in the city since home rule has created a black-led government.

Bally explains his entry into the establisllment he once scorned as a result of growth, and overcoming a certain political ignorance.

"It all goes back to my philosophy that it is better to try to make public policy than to influence it," Barry said. "I have not always had that view. I didn't understand all the dynamics of public policy."

History, changing political trends, shrewd political calculations and a close and unpredictable three-way primary Sept. 12 have lifted Barry into the center of power in District governnment. "I'm in the right place at the right time, and of the right generation," he said.

Yet, his outlook for the future of the city is a relatively modest one when compared to the pervasive social reformation campaign he once waged.

Barry rejects blind black nationalism and approaches city government slightly wary of innovative new programs, Utopian goals and quick solutions. Economic power is the new struggle for blacks, he said.

He wants, for example to put more blacks in previously white dominated technical, financial management and contracting positions in city government, he said. But he will not be hesitant to pass over blacks for department directorships if he considers the blacks incompetent. "A black person who is a department head and is incometent is a bad model," he said. "I have to look at the competency and the color, if that's a factor."

Barry wants "to expand the base of quote-unquote successful blacks," enlarging the field of less than a dozen major black business persons he now sees to "35, 40 or 50" by 1982. He wants to do little but meaningful things to make life easier for those on welfare - like mailing out checks on several different days so lines at savings and loan firms and credit unions won't be so long, he said.

Marion Barry has never run anything near as large or complicated as the District government in his life. And as mayor, he won't really be running it. He has surrounded himself with a thick layer of experienced technocrats, loyal friends and veteran bureaucrats - most in his own image - to take care of the nuts and bolts of city operations, while Barry "sets the tons" and develops policy.

His minister, Eaton, says Barry is "a worrier. He does not take problems lightly. He does not even verbalize that he worries."

Two things Barry said he is really concerned about are managing his energy and time, which he said is "the biggest challenge to being the mayor," and "people decisions," such as finding the best people to serve in the more than 1,800 positions on various city boards and commissions. But, he said, he is not overwhelmed.

"Governing a large city is not easy. But Washington is manageable," he said. "Don't get the impression it's not going to be tough, but I just don't want to give you the impression that it's impossible."

"In four years, when you look back at it, you'll see that the conditions in the lives at the people of the Disrict, by and large - not everybody - will be better off."

"There'll still be people in 1982 who don't have enough money to pay their rent, who don't have adequate housing, who don't have jobs, who don't have a doctor during their pregnancy. But there'll be less of those people in 1982, if I have anything to do with it - which I will - than in 1978."

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