Long-time mayor of Washington D.C., Marion Barry followed his third term in office with a conviction on cocaine possession charges, but Washingtonians had not seen the last of him. Released from prison in 1992, three years later, Barry assumed the office of mayor for the fourth time.
For over 20 years, politician Marion Barry has epitomized all that is good and all that is bad about big-city politics in America. The Southern-born civil rights activist fought to gain legitimacy for Washington, D.C.'s citizenry, wresting control of the capital city's governance from the U.S. Congress and taking important steps to cure the city's problems with crime and unemployment. As he moved from business organizer to school board member to mayor, however, Barry was increasingly implicated in the corruption and graft that seemed to pervade the city government. In 1990, after serving as mayor for 12 years, Barry was arrested and convicted on cocaine possession charges in an ugly and widely publicized scandal. Washingtonians had not seen the last of Barry, however, for in 1992 he was released from prison and elected to the city council by the capital's poorest ward, thus continuing one of the oddest political journeys in recent history.
Marion S. Barry was born on March 6, 1936, in tiny Itta Bena, Mississippi. When he was four, his sharecropper father died and his mother, Mattie B. Barry, moved to Memphis, Tennessee, where she worked as a domestic and married a butcher named David Cummings. Barry thrived in Memphis, earning high grades in school and becoming an Eagle scout. At the same time, he picked cotton, waited tables, and delivered papers to help his parents and seven younger sisters.
Barry's poor background made him an unlikely candidate for higher education, but his good grades led him to Memphis's all-black LeMoyne College, where he earned a bachelor's degree in chemistry in 1958. Barry received his first taste of activism as a member of the college's chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). As chapter president, Barry led an effort to force a white college trustee to retract a disparaging remark he made about blacks while representing Memphis in a bus desegregation trial.
From LeMoyne, Barry went to Fisk University, a predominantly African American institution in Nashville where he earned his master's degree in chemistry. Barry helped form a NAACP chapter at Fisk, and in 1960, after participating in a workshop in nonviolence, organized the first lunch counter sit-ins in Nashville. Later that year, Barry and others interested in nonviolent protest met with the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., at Shaw College in Raleigh, North Carolina. There they established the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC; often pronounced "snick"), which became an important organizing force in the civil rights movement. Barry was named SNCC's first national chairman.
Through the early 1960s, Barry tried to balance education and activism as he shuttled between SNCC headquarters in Atlanta and teaching appointments at the University of Kansas, the University of Tennessee, and Knoxville College. "He was totally political, totally committed to empowering the people, to getting people elected, not just getting them equality at the lunch counter, " Lawrence T. Guyot, an SNCC veteran told the New York Times. In 1964, however, Barry gave up his doctoral work to labor full time for SNCC. He spent some time in New York City and then moved permanently to Washington, D.C., where he struck both friends and foes as a man with a mission. Gregarious, ebullient, and impatient, he soon became a leader of the capital's civil rights community. Washington's newspapers took one look at the six-foot-one-inch, 200-pound activist cloaked in African-style garb and dubbed him a "dashikiclad militant."
Barry's early activities in Washington fell within the tradition of the protest movement. In January of 1966 he protested rising bus fairs with a successful one-day bus boycott. The following month, he formed the "Free D.C. Movement, " which lobbied to free Washington from direct Congressional rule. "Free D.C." organized boycotts of merchants who wouldn't display its posters, thus forcing businesses to choose sides. Those who wanted customers in the predominantly black city chose "Free D.C." Barry's opponents labeled him an "extortionist and a caged panther, " according to the New York Times, but the movement succeeded in gaining a form of home rule by 1973.
By 1967 Barry had begun to appreciate the resources of government. He split with the increasingly radical SNCC and, trading his dashiki for a business suit, persuaded U.S. secretary of Labor Willard Wirtz to appropriate $300, 000 for "Youth Pride, " a one-month project that would hire 1, 100 African American youths to kill Washington's rats and clean its streets. Reaction to Youth Pride was mixed. Conservatives attacked the program as typical of "liberal" coddling of criminals and misfits, while the U.S. Attorney's Office investigated it for graft and corruption. But the jobs program was popular among inner-city constituents, gave Barry an important means of distributing political favors, and made him a major player on the Washington, D.C. political scene. Barry quickly won other grants for the program and within months had expanded it to include Pride Economic Enterprises, a for-profit venture that ran several small businesses and a 55-unit apartment complex.
In 1970 Barry ran for and won a seat on the citizen's board of Washington's Pilot Police District Project, an organization that had been set up to create rapport between precinct officers and the African American community. The following year, he won a seat on the school board—D.C.'s main elected body before home rule—by claiming he could run the board better than his opponent, incumbent board president Anita F. Allen. Analysts thought that Barry's successful mediation of a dispute between teachers and the board helped him win the spot. Between 1972 and 1974, Barry served as school board president. In 1972 Barry also wed Mary Treadwell; their marriage lasted just four years.
In 1973 Congress approved limited home rule for D.C., opening the way for the first mayoral and city council elections in 100 years. On June 5, 1974, Barry announced he would run for city council president. That summer, after failing to win any major endorsements, he decided to run instead for an at-large seat, a post which he easily won. Shedding his business ties to become a full-time politician, Barry reached out to all minorities and crafted one of the country's strongest gay rights bills. In 1976 he won reelection with 78 percent of the vote. The next year, Barry's career almost reached a premature end. Radical Hanafi Muslims seized the District Building demanding cancellation of a movie on the life of Mohammed. In the chaos, they shot Barry in the chest, barely missing his heart. Barry recovered quickly, however, and was back to work a few weeks later.
On January 21, 1978, after three years in the city council, Barry announced his intention to run for mayor. Observers gave him little chance against fellow Democrats Sterling Tucker—city council president—and incumbent mayor Walter E. Washington. But Barry, who campaigned vigorously on promises to cut government waste, reduce infant mortality, and provide housing for the city's poor, made the three-way race work to his advantage, capturing the minority white vote while his opponents split the African American majority vote. Barry also received the support of the city's gay community and last minute endorsements from the Washington Post and the municipal unions. He won the primary with a 35 percent plurality and, on November 7, 1978, he took 66 percent of the vote against Republican Arthur A. Fletcher.
In the euphoria of his victory, the press mentioned Barry—the first former civil rights activist to become mayor of a large city—as a potential vice-presidential candidate or senator should the District of Columbia become a state. Barry himself concentrated on solidifying his political support. To show solidarity with the African American community, he provided housing projects and job programs, and moved to a working-class neighborhood in Ward 7. He courted labor and senior citizens by adding to the city's work force, and he cozied up to business by making favorable zoning and development decisions.
Barry also faced a number of problems during his first term. Teachers went on strike, a long snowstorm paralyzed the city, and a $409 million budget deficit forced cuts in jobs and services. To raise funds, Barry asked for federal aid and borrowed money in the bond market. Beyond the workings of the city government, elements of scandal began to tarnish Barry's reputation. In 1979, the Washington Post charged that Mary Treadwell, the mayor's former wife and a co-founder of Youth Pride Inc., had skimmed $600, 000 in federal money from a Pride-run low-income housing project.
Despite these controversies, Barry won overwhelming victories in the 1982 primary and general election. During his second term, Washington regained its fiscal health, witnessed a renewal of its downtown, and saw a decline in unemployment and crime. The failures of the second term, however, seemed to have been caused by extreme examples of oversight. First, the city's housing stock declined noticeably, while the Barry administration failed to spend $8 million in federal grants. Moreover, Barry's administration was blamed for prison disturbances and arson at its Lorton Correctional Facility in July of 1986 that injured 22 inmates and guards and damaged 14 buildings. Barry blamed the riot on publicity given to a prison consultant's report which predicted that overcrowding would cause an uprising. The report, Barry told the New York Times, was a "self-fulfilling prophecy."
Such incidents pointed out the uncommonly high level of responsibility held by Washington, D.C.'s mayor. In most cities, responsibility for prisons would be shared by city, county, and state. In Washington, D.C., responsibility and power rest strictly in the mayor's hands. By the end of Barry's second term, evidence suggested that Barry was unable to manage that responsibility. Treadwell and Barry's chief aid, Ivanhoe Donaldson, were convicted of financial crimes. A female city worker with whom Barry had a "personal" relationship was convicted of selling cocaine. And Barry's third wife, Effie Slaughter, whom he had married in 1978, was forced to decline a sharply discounted mortgage when the transaction was made public.
Despite the controversy, Barry won a third term in 1986, gaining 71 percent of the primary vote and 61 percent of the vote in the general election, in which he was opposed by Carol Schwartz, a city councilwoman who made an issue of the fact that Barry's son, Christopher, went to private schools. Barry began his third term with a jubilant four-day celebration, but conditions in his administration soon deteriorated. A blizzard hit and the city failed to respond adequately. Then a fiscal crisis forced the mayor to eliminate 1, 223 jobs and increase taxes on business and consumers. Barry blamed the city's fiscal crunch on Congress, noting that the federal government's real estate went untaxed except for what Congress decided to appropriate.
To make matters worse, the law seemed to be closing in on the mayor himself. On December 22, 1988, police officers about to make an undercover drug buy from Charles Lewis, a former Virgin Islands official and an acquaintance of Barry, were called back when they learned that the mayor was in Lewis's hotel room. The incident led to a grand jury investigation into possible interference by the mayor in the drug investigation. On January 19, 1989, Barry appeared before the grand jury and testified for three hours. Later, he told reporters he had done nothing wrong.
By April, Lewis had been convicted on four counts of cocaine possession in the Virgin Islands and faced multiple charges in Washington. On November 6, 1989, Lewis pleaded guilty to two conspiracy charges and named Barry as a person for whom he bought crack. Finally, on January 18, 1990, police arrested Barry in Washington's Vista Hotel, charging that he had smoked crack in the room of Rhasheeda Moore. Released on bond, Barry checked into Hanley-Hazelden Treatment Center in West Palm Beach, Florida, where, according to his spokesman, he spent seven weeks being treated for alcoholism.
By February 15, 1990, a grand jury returned nine counts against Barry based on the Moore incident, his visits to Lewis, and possible perjury before the grand jury. That May, the jury returned six new counts, five accusing him of cocaine possession, one of conspiracy. If convicted on all 14 counts the mayor could have faced 26 years in jail and fines of $1, 850, 000. Barry contended that the government's case was the work of overzealous prosecutors out to get a big-city mayor; Jay B. Stephens, the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, told the New York Times that his office was "fairly enforcing the criminal laws without regard to the position or status of the offender."
On June 13, 1990, shortly before his trial was set to begin, Barry announced he would not run for a fourth term: "Now is a time for healing, for me personally and for you politically, " the New York Times quoted him as saying. "This decision is not related to my legal situation. It is related to my recovery and to what I know is best for my wife and son who suffered for so long through this ordeal." Barry's drug trial lasted eight weeks, attracting publicity throughout the nation. Many local residents were saddened and angered by testimony that portrayed the mayor as a drug user, testimony which included a video-tape taken during the Moore incident. Others were outraged by what they considered a vendetta by white prosecutors against one of the country's most prominent African American politicians.
On August 10, 1990, the jury answered the prosecutor's 14 counts with a conviction on a single misdemeanor charge of cocaine usage. It acquitted him on another misdemeanor, and it failed to reach a verdict on the 12 remaining charges. That fall, while he made his appeals, Barry made what seemed a desperate bid for an at-large council seat on the city council. The Washington Post described his campaign "listless, " "haggard, " and "distracted." His candidacy flopped everywhere but Ward 8, where the city's poorest residents gave him a majority.
In October of 1990, Barry finally resigned as mayor of Washington, D.C. His lawyers were able to delay but not completely forestall U.S. District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson's six month sentence—the longest allowed under federal guidelines. In sentencing Barry on September 27, 1991, Jackson accused Barry of giving an "aura of respectability" to the capital's violent drug culture, according to the Los Angeles Times.
In the spring of 1992, after serving his sentence, Barry returned to Washington politics. He rented a house in Ward 8 and ran for the city council, relying heavily on religious and African themes. Though opposed by almost every established politician, including the new mayor, Sharon Pratt Kelly, he campaigned vigorously and registered more than a thousand voters. On September 16, 1992, Barry took 70 percent of a record high turnout, defeating former ally Wilhelmina Rolark by a ratio of 3-to-1 in the primary. The following month, he won a two-year city council term in the general election, thus beginning a remarkable political rebirth.
Barry's unlikely return to public life continued into the mid 1990s. Late in 1993, Barry began to conduct polls, raise money, and line up potential support for a 1994 run for mayor. A January 1994 poll conducted by the Washington Post indicated that Barry was already more popular than mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly, whose administration was damaged by allegations of conflicts of interest in 1992. Personal healing accompanied political healing throughout January, when Barry married longtime friend Cora Lavonne Masters. The marriage, which was attended by Mayor Kelly, Jesse Jackson, poet Maya Angelou, and activist Betty Shabazz, focused on unity. Presenting himself as an example to Washington, D.C.'s largely poor population, Barry returned to politics with a successful campaign for a city council position in 1992.
In 1995 Barry assumed the office of mayor for the fourth time. The biggest challenges facing him were an estimated billion dollar debt and a possible take-over of the city's operations by the federal government. By spring Congress set up a financial control board when the city's schools, foster care programs, police force, and fire department began to show the effects of working under the huge deficit. But because Barry was able to establish a good relationship with Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, according to the New York Times Magazine, "Republican hard-liners don't get to play social engineer" and massively reform the city. It is due to Barry's continued influence with the poorest members of his electorate that he was able to protect home rule of the district. However, Barry has "considerably less money to bring home to the District" with the reduced budget finally approved by Congress.
By May 1996 Barry was taking an indefinite personal leave. Friends attributed it to the long hours he has been working and the prostrate surgery he had undergone in December of the previous year. But rumors of Barry using drugs again; an investigation by the U.S. Attorney's Office into his dealings with real-estate investor, Yong Yun; allegations that Mrs. Barry misappropriated monies from the 1994 campaign; and the continued downsliding of city services made some wonder whether Barry's days in office were numbered. Indeed, Newsweek reporters Daniel Klaidman and Michael Isikoff wrote, "While Barry is unquestionably revered by thousands of lower-income residents, there are ample signs that many others are increasingly disenchanted … Meanwhile, the mayor [continued to seek] 'spiritual rejuvenation, ' … [while] insiders wondered whether the troubled reign of a shrewd political opportunist may finally be coming to a close." But Barry returned to work on May 13, 1996, after two weeks of personal introspection at retreats in Maryland and Missouri. Pronouncing himself spiritually renewed and mentally sharp, he denied rumors that his hiatus had been caused by drug or alcohol use or marriage problems. Although Barry appeared eager to resume his position as mayor, fiscal and racial troubles continued to plague Washington, D.C.
Concerned that racial divisions in the nation's capital had reached dangerous levels, Barry invited several religious, ethnic, business, and government to participate in a discussion of race relations on January 15, 1997 (the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr.). Despite the intentions of the hundreds who participated in Barry's "Day of Dialogue on Race Relations and Polarization, " it was clear that little had changed in the city, one of the most racially divided in the U.S.
In an attempt to solve the fiscal problems of Washington, D.C., Barry unveiled his proposed budget for 1998, a $3.3 billion spending plan. Arguing that cities restructure debt all the time, Barry said that if the control board refused the plan, he would be forced to cut millions more from the Police Department, the Fire Department, and the public school system, even though the control board has made public safety and education its highest priority. Based on a 1995 law that created the control board, an agreement on the budget must be reached by the Mayor, the City Council, and the board before the budget is sent to Congress for approval.
Further Reading on Marion Shepilov Barry Jr
Jet, January 10, 1994, pp. 35-36; February 20, 1995, p. 6.
The New York Times, May 14, 1996, p. A14; December 27, 1997, p. A18; January 15, 1997, p. A16; February 4, 1997, p. A14.
The New York Times Magazine, October 29, 1995, pp. 38-41, 44-45, 54-58, 76.
Newsweek, May 13, 1996, pp. 32-33.