He was the first prominent civil rights activist to become mayor of a large American city. That is impressive. Yet there is a lot more to Marion Barry than that. Boy is there a lot more to him.
In many ways Marion Barry is not a great candidate for Mayor of the Month. He is far from perfect. But he is an intriguing figure and one I think we can all learn from. If nothing else, it’s going to be an interesting month.
Marion Barry was born the son of sharecropper in rural Mississippi. His father died when he was only four years old making his start in life the dictionary definition of dirt poor. Few would have thought the young man in the field picking cotton would amount to anything much.
Marion Barry became involved in political action early on. When he was barely in his teens he had a paper round. He realised that even something that simple could become a civil rights issue. The white deliverers were receiving a bonus for getting new subscribers to the paper. If they got enough they were sent on a trip. It didn’t matter how many new subscribers the black boys signed up, there were no trips.
What do you do about inequality? Like Marion says, “You don’t talk about making a change; you do something about it.”
Marion coordinated the other black deliverers and they stopped distributing their papers. In a matter of days there were so many complaints that the newspaper company had to provide the black kids with an incentive scheme. They got their trips and the young Marion learnt a valuable lesson about direct action.
Education is the answer
Marion’s mother worked hard to raise the family from poverty and part of this involved encouraging them to get an education. Marion was a very capable student who went on to study chemistry at post graduate level.
But even this route out of the hardships of southern life was steeped in racism. In the 60s around 90% of the educational establishments were closed to this bright young man.
By the start of the 60s Marion was no stranger to student politics. While completing a master’s degree he became involved with the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee. He took an active part in voter registration and direct action. He eventually rose to become chair of the organisation. After running the organisation’s office in New York, he found himself heading to the nation’s capital.
Coming to Washington
Many Americans consider Washington DC to be the beating heart of democracy. Yet when Marion arrived it was the most undemocratic cities in the country. The local government was not elected by the people of Washington. Instead a committee was appointed by the President and approved by the Senate. It is remarkable to think that the capital of the USA has had a democratic local government for less than 50 years.
Washington’s token of democracy was its elected school board. Marion wasted no time in putting his name forward for a seat on it. In his first public elections he took 58% of the vote compared with the incumbent’s 34%. Upon taking his seat he was elected president of the board an in two years he transformed the school system’s finances and brought about consensus.
A seat at the table
Just two years later home rule came to Washington and Marion was ready for a bigger test.
The first elections to Washington’s city council came in 1974 and Marion easily secured his seat on the council. He quickly rose to become chair of the finance and revenue committee. He was ready for the political big time.
As Washington is a heavily Democrat city the difficult election is not the actual election. The hard bit is to win the Democrat nomination, and that is a tough job. Marion had his sights on the office of Mayor and some powerful people stood in his way.
To secure the Democrat nomination, Marion would have to overcome the formidable force of the current mayor and the chairman of the council. The race was close, in the end it took over two weeks to verify the result. Marion won through with his image as a man of action and his promises to take a stand.
In comparison the general election was not much of a contest.
Now you’re the mayor
Marion Barry took office on a wave of enthusiasm and immediately got to work. He brought order and control to the city’s finances. He started to show people that good government is good politics.
He also rolled out a summer work programme city wide. This offered every young person in Washington a job for the summer. This was hugely popular with the young people and also went a long way to improving Washington’s less than perfect environment.
Perhaps most interestingly of all he filled his cabinet with African Americans, women and younger people, groups which where massively underrepresented in city hall. As he put it “I wanted a cabinet that looked like the people of DC.”
People saw what he was doing as a positive change. Unsurprisingly, they greeted it with optimism. Marion Barry gave people in Washington a reason to hope. And in return they gave him their love. In fact, they re-elected him twice.
The dark side of the story
Many people have claimed that Marion Barry developed a drug problem while in office. This is something that he has always denied. He admits to associating with drug users and enjoying partying but claimed to never have been interested in drugs.
Falling from grace
During his third term as mayor he chose to visit a former girlfriend at a local hotel. She insisted that he smoke crack cocaine before they have sex. When Marion agreed, the FBI burst into the room
The FBI had hoped this sting operation would expose the web of criminality that it believed underpinned Marion’s life. In the end, he was taken to court for 11 charges and only prosecuted for one of them. He spent six months in prison.
Doubtless you take a dim view of people smoking cocaine. Doubtless you’re less than keen on people visiting hotels to have sex with someone who isn’t his wife. Hey, I agree with you. This is unacceptable behaviour for a community leader. It is certainly not the stuff that Mayors of the Month are made of.
The thing is, it doesn’t really matter what we think. What matters is what the people of Washington DC think.
Two months after he left prison Marion Barry put his name forward to contest a forthcoming city council election. He ran with the slogan “He May Not Be Perfect, But He’s Perfect for D.C.”. He romped home. The people of Washington made their own decision about Marion Barry.
Just two years later Barry ran for mayor. He won the election, albeit with the lowest victory margin ever seen. He served a four-year term which was characterised by financial problems and struggles with national government. He decided not to run for a fifth term.
He remained in politics representing Washington’s Ward 8 until his death in 2014.
Marion Barry wasn’t perfect, but he inspired a generation, not just from Washington but the whole of the USA. In fact, you should read the biography he co-wrote, Mayor for Life. You can’t help getting caught up in his infectious enthusiasm and no-nonsense attitude.
I think if we’re going to take one thing from him it is this: he saw that there was something wrong and he did something about it. We can’t all be Mayor of Washington, but we can all see things that are wrong. And we can all do something about them.
You could be the kind of civic leader who ate a lot of buffets or you could be someone who made a difference. Marion made his choice, it’s time for you to make yours.