Politics » Politics Feature

Remembering Marion Barry

An important political career that ended in death last weekend in Washington, D.C., had its origins in Memphis. 



Sometime in the spring of 1990, I had lucked into a gig in Washington, D.C., speaking to a meeting of the National Association of Counties about the relationship between public figures and the media.

The meeting was in the Washington Hilton, and, after our session was through, I lingered a while and found myself in another ballroom of the hotel, rubber-necking the conclusion of a dinner that was being addressed by the mayor of Washington, D.C., Marion Barry.  

Barry had been the target of an F.B.I. sting operation in January of that year. The feds had videotaped him in a Washington hotel room, allegedly in the act of soliciting both sex and cocaine from a woman who was not his wife. This was almost a full generation before YouTube, but the clip showing him lighting up on crack just before being busted had played on TV for days and had the same kind of universality. 

The mayor would subsequently be tried — and convicted — in federal court on the cocaine charges and do six months in jail. But on this night in early April he was still a free man, having just emerged from several weeks of self-committed seclusion at a drug rehab center. He looked surprisingly fit and unworried for one presumably so weighted down. Indeed, even with his legal situation at that point unresolved, his remarks at the dinner had been clearly focused on the prospect of a mayoral race scheduled for later that year. 

Somehow we ended up in conversation after the dinner, and, to my surprise, having found out where I was from and that I was connected with a paper in Memphis, he began suggesting that we should do an interview — part of it right there in the hotel ballroom and the rest of it via long-distance telephone when I got back to Memphis. 

For all I knew, it was to be Barry's first post-arrest, post-rehab interview, or among the first, anyhow, just as the speech to the AFL-CIO was his return to the world at large.

I was grateful but curious. There were no votes for him in Memphis, after all, but, before our two-pronged interview was over with, I would come to see just how important Memphis, his point of personal and political origin, must have been to him psychologically and how, just by introducing myself, I had given him an opportunity to touch base. 

"I'm just trying to get out from under all this bad stuff and turn over a whole new leaf," Barry told me at the Hilton. 

He had just made a pointed reference in his speech to the AFL-CIO crowd of redefining himself vis-à-vis his Maker, defining the word "ego," anagrammatically, as meaning "Easing God Out," and saying, "When that happens, you ease yourself out."

This wasn't the stereotypical case of a man in trouble finding God, he would tell me. "I already knew Him. I've always been a Christian. I didn't get up on any mountaintop or get knocked off a donkey on the road to Damascus or anything like that. [pause] But I've had a spiritual awakening, yes." 

Barry had come to national prominence through several stages — as leader of student sit-ins in Nashville, where he'd gone to graduate school at Fisk University, as an up-front operative of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and later as its national chairman. By then a resident of Washington, he served several terms on the D.C. Board of Education and the Washington City Council, and he was shot and almost killed by a radical Muslim gunman while in the latter role. 

Elected mayor of Washington in 1978, Barry was in his third term and was virtually assured of winning a fourth at the time of his drug bust. The D.C. media had begun referring to him as "Mayor for Life," a sobriquet that, interestingly enough, would later be applied to a friend from his Memphis days, Willie Herenton, who this week was among those being called on for recollections of Barry. 

Born in Itta Bena, Mississippi, in 1936, Barry was raised in South Memphis, where he attended Florida Elementary School, Booker T. Washington High School, and LeMoyne-Owen College. It was in Memphis, he told me, where his political awareness and public career actually began. 

From the 1990 Flyer interview: "Yeah, hell, yeah!" he affirmed, recalling such indignities as having to wait until Thursday to visit the Memphis Zoo or getting a cheap bicycle for his 20 new subscribers to The Commercial Appeal when his fellow white carriers were rewarded for the same feat by an annual pilgrimmage to the glittering city of New Orleans. "That didn't make any sense ... so some other black carriers and I talked them into giving us a trip to St. Louis, which was, unlike New Orleans, an unsegregated city back then."

But the galvanizing event, that which definitely pushed the bookish former Eagle Scout and would-be scientist [Barry was a chemistry major] into politics as a calling, came during his LeMoyne years, when ex-Mayor Walter Chandler undertook a legalistic defense of segregated busing.

"It was very insulting to me," recalled Barry. "It just struck me as wrong that Chandler, who was on the Board of Trustees of LeMoyne, would actually be opposed to the interests of black people." So the unheralded student then wrote a letter calling for Chandler to resign from the board. 

And quicker than you could say "ex-laboratory lizard," he found himself celebrated. This was the mid-1950s — about the time, after all, that a young minister named Martin Luther King was coming to public attention as the leader of a bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama. Marion Barry was taking his first deep breaths at just the right time.


All that was in the beginning. By the time I encountered him in that ballroom of the Washington Hilton, he had not only enjoyed a zenith-like political career in the nation's capital, he had encountered his Icarus moment, had let the bright light of heedless ambition scorch his wax wings and plummet him downward.

Although Barry would claim entrapment during his trial later in 1990 and beat all but one of the charges against him, that of simple possession, he was kept from running again for mayor and even lost a race for city council.

Before all that, he was making an effort to take stock. There had been women, too many. There had been drugs. There had been booze. Too much of all of that. Even his young son had reproached him, post-arrest, for always having a drink in his hand, he told me.

"I realized I'd lost control of things. It takes that for a lot of alcoholics, some dramatic realization like that in the family," he said.

I asked: Might he fall again? "I don't intend to. Who's to speculate on what you do in the future? I want to be the best mayor I can possibly be, the best husband, the best person."  

He could not help expressing some bitterness, even some self-pity, about his predicament. "Who's concerned anymore about homelessness and discrimination and poverty? I dedicate whole working days to those areas, and all some people are concerned about is what happens between 10 o'clock and midnight!"

Barry would rise again in subsequent years, going on to run for mayor again and winning several more terms. And he would fall again, as well, succumbing to numerous other documented bouts with drugs and alcohol. There were tax problems. And health issues. He was out of office and a worn-out case when he died on Sunday in Washington of cardiac arrest, at age 78.

But, for all his mortal frailties, he was still respected and claimed by many as an inspiration. Ninth District Congressman Steve Cohen, who stayed in touch with this fellow son of Memphis, issued something of an epitaph, saying in part: "Marion Barry was always gracious and full of information when we talked, and I am saddened to hear of his passing. ... As Maya Angelou once said, he 'changed America with his unmitigated gall to stand up in the ashes of where he had fallen and come back to win.' He was beloved by many in our nation's capital and around the country, and he will be missed."

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