Marion Barry was a polarizing figure in a polarized town, a mayor so charismatic he was re-elected even after an FBI videotape showed him smoking crack.
Barry may have been best known outside Washington for the 1990 drug sting that sent him to prison for six months. But within the District of Columbia, some of his supporters referred to him as the “mayor for life.” In addition to serving three terms on the school board and four terms as mayor, Barry was a 15-year member of the City Council.
In earlier years, his name was floated for national office, and in 1984 he gave the nominating speech for the Rev. Jesse Jackson at the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco.
Barry, a Mississippi sharecropper’s son who chopped cotton, received a master’s degree in chemistry and became a civil rights leader before entering politics, died Sunday in a Washington hospital after collapsing outside his home. He was 78.
The cause of death was not disclosed in a statement from his family, but Barry had experienced health problems for some time, including diabetes, high blood pressure and infections that were treated earlier this year during several weeks in a hospital and rehabilitation center.
Barry was the first chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a group that organized protests throughout the segregated South. He was the first black activist elected mayor of a major U.S. city. Barry helped guide the district through its tumultuous early years of home rule, an authority to self-govern that was granted by Congress in 1973.
But Barry also was dogged by scandals, many of them self-created. He visited strip clubs, dodged income taxes and took junkets to exotic destinations. At one point, 10 members of his administration were convicted of corruption or malfeasance. A girlfriend — the one who lured him to his drug arrest at a Washington hotel — started a publicly financed modeling program for young people called Project Me.
Though other council members censured him in 2010 and 2013 for improper use of public funds and accepting cash gifts from a city contractor, Barry was, as Washingtonian magazine described him, “confoundingly popular.”
“I’m not perfect,” he declared to cheering supporters after his third mayoral victory, “but I’m perfect for Washington.”
In a 2012 Washington Post poll that asked residents about 10 local politicians, Barry had the highest favorability rating among sitting officials. But the same poll also gave him one of the lowest favorability ratings — a perplexing testament to his dramatic popularity, and equally dramatic unpopularity, among different groups.
Some of Barry’s supporters admired him for his outsized personality.
“Many took his struggle to personify in some way their own, endearing him and making him a larger-than-life figure as he became a creator of post-home-rule D.C.,” said Eleanor Holmes Norton, the district’s delegate to the House of Representatives, in a statement Sunday.
But Barry generated conflicting feelings for years.
A 1990 Los Angeles Times profile described the questions that Washington residents had long debated: “Is Marion Barry the victim of trial by press, of a racist plot against black home rule, or of his own excesses? Is he a sick addict, a brazen rake, or a martyr? Is this a Greek tragedy, or a bad joke?”
Barry’s critics slammed him for creating thousands of city jobs, but supporters said the positions were essential.
“Marion Barry is guilty as hell of that,” civil rights activist Lawrence Guyot told The Washington Post. “He employed a lot of people, he made a lot of people middle class, he put a lot of people through college, he paid a lot of rent.”
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Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., said Sunday that Barry “will always be remembered for the most expansive youth jobs program in the United States, where summer employment was guaranteed for every school-age resident.”
Others contended that Barry’s generosity came at too high a price.
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In the New Republic, former FBI agent and police reform activist Carl T. Rowan Jr. said Barry had diminished Washington’s Police Department. “He saw it in much the same way he saw the city’s civilian bureaucracy,” Rowan wrote: “As a source of jobs for people whose main qualification was their eligibility to vote for Barry.”
Born March 6, 1936, in Itta Bena, Miss., Marion Shepilov Barry Jr. grew up in Memphis. He was an Eagle Scout who graduated from all-black LeMoyne College in 1958 and received his master’s degree in chemistry from Fisk University in 1960. On the way to his doctorate at the universities of Kansas and Tennessee, he got involved in the civil rights movement.
As a young activist, Barry was so outspoken that his friends nicknamed him “Shep,” after Dmitri T. Shepilov, the editor of the Russian newspaper Pravda. Barry soon took Shepilov as his middle name.
When he arrived in Washington in the mid-1960s, Barry headed SNCC’s Free D.C. movement, a drive for the district’s statehood.
Though that failed, Barry was elected to his first council term in 1974 and also survived a bullet wound he suffered at an Islamic organization’s siege of government buildings. He was elected mayor in 1978.
During his first term, Barry was credited with reinvigorating down-and-out Washington neighborhoods and improving the city’s standing on Wall Street.
But over the years, rumors about his personal life followed him.
In 1983, he told Newsweek that he was “not going to tolerate innuendo” about his alleged drug use.
“I know about myself,” he said. “I was trained as a scientist and I know how dangerous this stuff is to your body.”
In 1991, a federal jury found him guilt of misdemeanor cocaine use, but acquitted him or deadlocked on 13 other charges. At his sentencing, U.S. District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson said Barry had “contributed to the anguish that illegal drugs have inflicted on this city.”
When he was released from prison in 1992, his black limousine was followed by six busloads of celebrating supporters. Despite his conviction, he was re-elected mayor in 1994.
Leaving politics after his term ended, he was a municipal bond consultant for several years before running successfully for City Council in 2004. He was re-elected in 2008 and 2012.
Barry’s survivors include Cora, his fourth wife, and son, Marion Christopher Barry.
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