The life and times of Marion Barry Jr., the four-time mayor of Washington, D.C., make for interesting reading. Here was a Mississippi sharecropper’s son who first took to education to elevate himself but soon found that the opportunity was ripe to enter politics.
He received a bachelor’s degree in 1958 from Le Moyne College and completed a master’s degree in chemistry from Fisk University, however, the Civil Rights Movement lured him away from completing his doctorate.
By 1965, Barry had moved to Washington to launch a local chapter of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Till the early 1970s, the city had no local government and was run by a Congressional subcommittee, which was often chaired by a white southerner.
Barry observed the disenchantment of D.C.’s younger black population toward older, established white people and quickly capitalized on it.
In January 1979, Barry took the oath of office for the first time as mayor of the District of Columbia, having defeated the city’s first elected mayor, incumbent Walter E. Washington. Curiously, he performed well among white voters west of Rock Creek Park and on Capitol Hill. He was sworn in by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, the first African American to serve on the high court.
Barry served three terms as mayor of the District of Columbia, survived a drug arrest and jail sentence, and crucially came back to successfully run a fourth term as mayor of Washington, D.C.
Barry was caught on tape smoking crack with a model and prostitute Rahsheeda Moore whom he had a history with in an FBI and DC police sting operation. Barry maintained he was set up.
He was arrested and charged with drug possession and the use of crack at the Vista International Hotel in downtown Washington. The woman had agreed to set up Barry in exchange for a reduced sentence in an earlier drug conviction.
Barry, after some days, left town for a seven-week rehabilitation program in Florida and later in South Carolina.
In September 1991, the judge sentenced him to six months in prison and a year on probation plus a fine of $5,000. After serving his sentence, Barry returned to D.C. politics with claims he had overcome his “personal adversities.” He was elected to the city council and once again won the mayoral election in 1994 for an unprecedented fourth term.
“In 1997, Barry, often accused of corruption, was stripped of much of his power by Congress, which passed legislation to end ‘home rule’ in the District,” according to History.
In January 1999, he retired. However, he entered politics again when he ran for the Ward 8 City Council seat and won with 96% of the vote in November 2004.
Barry was loved by many in Washington. During his years as mayor, he built the city’s sports arena then known as MCI Center and brought back to life a section of downtown that had been abandoned after the 1968 riots.
He also introduced a program that offered inner-city kids summer employment in federal and city government departments that were shut off to black kids. “Those were white folks’ positions and Marion Barry made it so black folks could get some of those government jobs,” Robert North stated.
Born on March 6, 1936, in the rural hamlet of Itta Bena, young Barry had to grow quickly and help his mum survive by selling newspapers on street corners, waiting tables, bagging groceries and inspecting soda bottles.
He married Blantie Evans, his first wife in 1962. While engaged in civil rights work, he organized a group called Pride Inc., which helped over 1,000 inner-city youths gain jobs. He would later enter full-time politics.
Barry had health problems and underwent a kidney transplant in 2009. He died of hypertensive cardiovascular disease in 2014 at the United Medical Center in Washington aged 78.