Why, Despite Corruption, Marion Barry Was So Beloved

When it came to winning the public's approval, Washington, D.C.'s "Mayor for Life" knew that a little bit goes a long way.
by | December 11, 2014

Public officials, particularly elected ones, have a difficult role to play. Voters want someone who is relatable, someone they could imagine themselves having a conversation with. But politicians who let their moral failings outshine the rest of their personality can lose the careful respect they seek.

And then there’s Marion Barry.

He was the kind of politician who could show up to a community meeting to shouts of “Barrr-ry! Barrr-ry!” speak out in favor of a development the community is against, and still leave the room to the same enthusiastic roar. His deft political maneuvering in the mid-1990s created an unlikely ally in then-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich -- so much so, that the two appeared on the cover of Time magazine. And, yes, he inspired such loyalty that he could get caught on tape smoking crack with a prostitute, go to prison for it and then emerge to successfully run a comeback fourth term as mayor of Washington, D.C.

But why was Barry, who died last month of heart failure, so beloved he seemed invincible? Simply put, said D.C. historian and author John Muller, “He made people.” Muller is planning to resurrect his one-man play, “Mayor For Life: The Untold Story” to be performed Monday in D.C.’s Anacostia neighborhood. The play explores the folklore of Barry and that includes the notion that, “he didn’t change corruption in Washington, he changed who benefited from it,” Muller says.

Certainly on the big things, he was a master at getting others what they wanted and then taking credit for it. He loved to remind anyone who asked (or didn’t) that he was responsible for the city’s sports arena that was built during Barry’s second mayoralty in the mid-1990s and largely credited for helping revive a section of downtown that had been deserted after the 1968 riots. Barry’s critics liked to say that the he practically gave away valuable downtown land for free to get the deal. Still, as longtime local reporter Tom Sherwood noted in a column after the 78-year-old’s death on Nov. 23, prosecutors pursued Barry for many things. But enriching himself was not one of them.

Barry didn’t limit his political wooing to the developers and other financially influential locals. He applied the same mastery to serving his constituents.

At a viewing of his casket in the John A. Wilson Building (D.C.’s city hall), scores of those who showed up to pay their respects had a personal story about something Barry did, or knew someone whom he’d helped. Denise Abney said it was Barry’s office who directed her to a drug and alcohol treatment program that helped her get clean. Another longtime resident of Barry’s Ward 8 said her co-op resident’s group reached out to his office for guidance on how to get rid of the building’s 67-year-old windows that were contaminated with lead. The process, including selecting a contractor and finding funding, took less than 5 months, said Pamela Y. Wills. “He does that for everybody,” she added. “Marion was really, I guess you could say, our Black Jesus.”

Marion Barry's casket on display at his funeral. (Executive Office of the D.C. Mayor)

The son of a Mississippi sharecropper, Barry sought out education to lift himself up. He received a bachelor’s degree in 1958 from Le Moyne College and completed a master’s degree in chemistry from Fisk University before his passion for the Civil Rights Movement lured him away from completing his doctorate.

Barry moved to Washington in 1965 to launch a local chapter of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Barry quickly capitalized on the agitated feelings at the time among D.C.’s younger black population toward older, established white people. Up until the early 1970s, the city had no local government and was run by a Congressional subcommittee -- one that had a history of being chaired by a white southerner.

Barry’s most lasting effort to help D.C.’s longtime residents was a summer youth employment program he co-started independently in the late 1960s and later folded into District government. Countless Washingtonians can point to that today as a turning point in their own lives. Robert North, who was selling Marion Barry commemorative shirts outside the Wilson building, said that program, which offered inner city kids summer employment in federal and city government departments, opened a door that many had thought was closed to them. “Those were white folks’ positions,” North said. “And Marion Barry made it so black folks could get some of those government jobs.”

After news of Marion Barry's death broke, t-shirts were quickly printed and sold on street corners in his honor. (Liz Farmer)

Barry also collected extensive detractors in the course of his career. Chief among them was attorney Joe DiGenoa, the former federal prosecutor who investigated Barry for much of the late 1980s, during Barry’s first mayoralty. “Marion Barry was a guy who was very smart, very sophisticated politically and he didn’t care about consequences,” DiGenoa said. And of Barry’s opportunism? “He was in a city that was full of people in an African-American community that were completely unsophisticated about politics and just ready for the picking -- and he picked,” DiGenoa said. “He was their guy.”

In his rise, fall, and rise again, Barry publicly represented what many blacks in D.C. saw in their own lives. It’s a long-lasting sentiment in a city that today is in the middle of another cultural and racial transition as more whites move in.

“Really, I’m surprised they didn’t do more,” said Muller of the Barry festivities that included a processional through the D.C. ward he represented as a councilman for the past decade, a day-long funeral at the 14,000-seat convention center that included a eulogy by Rev. Jesse Jackson and tributes from Gingrich and Rev. Louis Farrakhan. Barry was buried privately but the tributes have continued. Washington, D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray’s office said this week that it is receiving so many requests to rename things for Barry that Gray plans to create a committee to keep them all straight and consider which ones should actually be adopted. Mayor-elect Muriel Bowser has already said she would like to name the city's summer jobs program after Barry.

“They say D.C. will never be the same because Marion Barry’s gone,” his 34-year-old son Christopher told the Washington Post at last weekend’s funeral. “They’re right, because now there’s thousands of -- millions of Marion Barrys out there. He’ll never die.”

D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray, second from left, and Councilmember Phil Mendelson, right, escort Cora Masters Barry, center, to one of the funeral events last week. Christopher Barry is on the left. (Executive Office of the D.C. Mayor)