Marion Barry, Civil Rights Leader, Second D.C. Mayor, Dies at 78

Marion Barry, the civil-rights leader who became a polarizing political figure during two spans as mayor of Washington, D.C., separated by a prison sentence for drug possession, has died. He was 78.

He died yesterday at United Medical Center in Washington, less than a day after he was released from Howard University Hospital, his family said in a statement, according to the Associated Press.

His long history of health troubles included diabetes, a diagnosis of prostate cancer in the 1990s and a kidney transplant in 2009. He was hospitalized for 16 days in January 2014.

Barry retained his popularity with residents of the nation’s capital even after his arrest on drug charges, reports of womanizing and cocaine use, and failure to pay U.S. income taxes.

As the city’s second elected mayor, from 1979 to 1991, and fourth elected mayor, from 1995 to 1999, he boosted spending on government programs, increased the city payroll and gave contracts to minority-owned firms.

The Washington Post reported in 1998 that D.C. government, under Barry, had hired more municipal employees than any other U.S. city.

Also part of the Barry record were guilty pleas or convictions of more than a dozen people in his administration for misconduct in office. Courts appointed receivers to oversee city agencies that provided public housing and cared for the mentally ill. In 1995, the U.S. Congress took away much of his remaining power by creating the District of Columbia Financial Control Board, which oversaw city finances through 2001.

‘Very Bright’

“He was very bright, with wonderful leadership and oratorical skills,” said former U.S. Representative James Walsh, a New York Republican who chaired the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversaw spending for the District of Columbia. “But he didn’t have a clue how to run a city.”

The politically resilient Barry returned to politics in 2004, winning a seat on the City Council representing Ward 8, the city’s poorest.

In 2010, the council voted to censure Barry and strip him of two important committee posts after an investigation concluded he had misused public money by winning a $15,000 contract for a sometime-girlfriend.

Master’s Degree

The censure did little to dent his image among his constituents: he won re-election in 2012 with 73 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary and 88 percent in the general election.

Marion Shepilov Barry Jr. was born on March 6, 1936, in Itta Bena, Mississippi, and grew up in Memphis, one of 10 children raised by a single mother. He graduated from LeMoyne-Owen College in 1958 and received a master’s degree in organic chemistry from Fisk University in 1960.

While in school, Barry became active in the fledgling effort to secure equal rights for blacks, and in 1960 he was named chairman of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee. He dropped out of a doctoral program in chemistry at the University of Tennessee to turn his attention to the civil-rights movement.

He moved to Washington in 1965 to set up a SNCC chapter in the nation’s capital, only to quit the organization after a successor, Stokely Carmichael, talked about “black power,” and another, H. Rap Brown, called violence “as American as cherry pie.” Both men later joined the Black Panther Party.

School Board

Barry stayed in Washington and set up his own federally funded jobs program, Pride Inc. He got active in local politics as Congress prepared for the first time to allow District residents to govern themselves.

A member of the D.C. school board since 1972, Barry was elected to the City Council in 1974. He won a second term in 1976.

A year, later Barry was wounded when a group of Hanafi Muslims took more than 100 hostages at the District Building, B’nai B’rith headquarters and a Muslim center. Two people were killed in the 29-hour siege before the hostage-takers surrendered.

Barry won the first of his terms as mayor in 1978 and would be re-elected twice, causing the local alternative weekly newspaper, City Paper, to dub him “mayor for life.” In 1984, he nominated the Rev. Jesse Jackson for president at the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco.

Drug Arrest

The euphoria that a civil-rights leader was heading the nation’s capital dissipated in the wake of convictions of several city officials for corruption, a decline in the quality of city services even as the municipal payroll rose, and allegations about Barry’s womanizing, drinking and drug use.

Barry’s shot at a fourth mayoral term was derailed when the Federal Bureau of Investigation videotaped him smoking crack cocaine in a downtown hotel. The arrest followed years of rumors that he was using drugs.

He was convicted of misdemeanor drug possession and sentenced to six months in prison. While he appealed the conviction, he ran for the council rather than mayor. He lost and began serving his prison term the following year.

When he emerged from prison in 1992, he ran for the city council and won. Two years later, he ran for mayor again.

“I’m in recovery and so is my city,” he said at the time.

Upon re-taking office and facing a projected $722 million deficit, he proposed a budget that relied on increased federal aid rather make spending cuts. Congress, then under Republican control, responded by setting up the financial control board to oversee the city’s spending, taking away most of Barry’s power.

Income Taxes

Personal problems remained as well. In 2002, U.S. Park Police found small amounts of crack cocaine and marijuana in Barry’s car, though he was never charged with a crime. Barry pleaded guilty in 2005 to a failure to pay income taxes and was sentenced to three years of probation. In July 2009, he was arrested and charged with misdemeanor stalking of his girlfriend; those charges were dropped.

A 2009 documentary on HBO, “The Nine Lives of Marion Barry,” explored what it called “Barry’s improbable personal history.”

At a screening of the film in New York City, Barry told the Post, “Most people outside of Washington know me from 30-second or 15-second film clips. ‘‘They don’t know the real Marion Barry.’’

Barry was married and divorced four times and had one son, Christopher.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.
LEARN MORE