Former Washington, D.C. Mayor Marion Barry was one of the city’s most beloved figures, despite a scandal during his tenure that rocked the nation. Barry’s resilience and support from the African-American community earned him the distinction of being known as the city’s “Mayor For Life.”
He died early Sunday morning after battling an illness. He was 78. Barry, born March 6, 1936 in Itta Bena, Miss., was one of 10 children born to his parents. His father died when he was young, prompting his mother and siblings to move to Memphis, Tenn.
As a young boy, Barry and his family faced extreme racism and segregation. As a result, he became politically active early on, protesting the fact that as a Black paperboy he had less rights to rewards and perks than his white counterparts.
This streak of resistance would remain a part of Barry’s psyche as he became an adult. While attending LeMoyne-Owen College in Memphis, Barry joined the local NAACP chapter and became its president after experiencing segregation at every turn.
He became even more engaged in activism as a graduate student at Fisk University, joining the Nashville sit-ins and getting arrested in nonviolent protests. In 1960, Barry became the first chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and began organizing voting rights protests across the South.
He moved to Washington, D.C. in 1965 at the urging of a mentor, in a bid to help citizens in the “Chocolate City” earn political leverage. Barry embraced the city, most especially its Black residents. This would help make his transition to political office a seamless one.
After serving on the Board of Education, Barry was sworn in as D.C. mayor in 1979 and served three terms until 1991. During his third rumors of Barry’s drug use spread like wildfire and his disheveled appearance in the late ’80’s did nothing to help matters.
In 1990, a FBI sting caught Barry using crack cocaine with his girlfriend on videotape. Barry’s fall from grace tarnished his reputation and made the city the butt of jokes but he continued to have the support of voters.
After serving a prison sentence, Barry’s political comeback began in 1992. He won a City Council seat representing the mostly-black Ward 8, and in 1994 he was reelected to the mayor’s office for a record fourth term. In 2002, Barry returned to City Council representing Ward 8 and held the position until his death.
Barry made his missteps, but his undying love for Black people and quest for equality was unparalleled. His legacy, however tattered, remains that of a man who was truly for the people. Barry is survived by his wife of 20 years, Cora Master and his son, Marion Christopher.