Remembering Marion S. Barry, Jr.November 23, 2014
(photo credit: Marion Barry (right) with DC Schools Supt. Vincent Reed and Council Chair David Clarke)
While many news stories right now are recounting the foibles of Marion S. Barry, Jr., who died this morning at age 78, I prefer to remember the young activist who once was a bright hope for the District of Columbia. Other sources will recount his crimes and failings, which were many and very destructive for him and for the city. But there was a time when he was also a source of hope and inspiration for a newly-enfranchised city that still struggles too often with racial oppression and political dis-empowerment.
I first met Marion Barry in 1976 when I was a third year law student at Georgetown and he was a member of the first Council of the District of Columbia after the enactment of the Home Rule Charter. Working as a legislative intern for the great Councilmember Julius Hobson, I had a chance to see first-hand how a newly-empowered young government went about the myriad tasks of creating local laws for a city that had been too-long denied real enfranchisement. While Home Rule, itself, was something of a polite fiction — Congress did and still does control the purse-strings and has to give final approval to all D.C. legislation — the 1974 grant of limited home rule was an opportunity for the citizens and leaders of D.C. to start building their own legal and political structures.
That first D.C. Council was a roster of great figures in the national and local civil rights movement: in addition to Councilmembers Barry and Hobson, the group included legends like David A. Clarke (center of photo above with Barry on the right and then-DC Schools Superintendent Vincent Reed), John Wilson, Hilda Mason, Polly Shackleton and others similarly committed to ensuring full enfranchisement for D.C. citizens. Back then, Marion Barry was already a celebrated civil rights hero, someone whose presence was electric, whose convictions were passionate, who filled every room he entered with hope for broader rights and greater empowerment for D.C. Listening to him speak, I always felt convinced in the potential for expansion of rights in D.C. His unflagging belief in his cause was inspiring for the young law students like me who eschewed traditional legal practice in favor of learning the technical ropes behind making laws on the theory that justice could truly be served if we got the law right from the first draft.
Like his colleague David Clarke and others on that first Council, Marion Barry honed his early organizing talents by working alongside the great civil rights leaders of the 1960′s, including Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. (see below) and others. He led the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) one of the legendary protest groups of that era. He was visionary and relentless in standing with the poor and disenfranchised, in calling out racism and confronting injustice. Talking to him in those days was a thrill — he had been with Dr. King! He carried the legacy with elan.
(photo credit: TIME Magazine – Marion Barry (lower right) with Martin Luther King, Jr. and other activists)
I had just left my internship work at the District Building on that awful day in 1977 when shots rang out, and for a few fearful hours bits and pieces of news fueled rumors that Marion Barry was critically wounded by the actions of the group known as the Hanafi Muslims. These were the days before the internet, before twitter and facebook, before cell phones (can you imagine?) so information was limited and anxiety mounted through the 24-hour seige. A young reporter was killed, another person wounded, and more than 100 people were held hostage in three different locations. Skillful negotiators brought the standoff to a peaceful conclusion, but the experience seemed to make Marion Barry even more determined to make his mark on the city.
Sadly, as the years went by, and Councilmember Barry became Mayor Barry, the sense of justice and purity of purpose that emanated from association with the freedom fighters of the 1960′s became clouded, obscured in the treacherous weeds of poor administrative decisions in government and even worse personal choices. The dream of a fully empowered District of Columbia faded as his troubles mounted.
In a news obituary following the death of Council Chairman David Clarke in 1997, the Washington Post reporters observed:
“Notwithstanding considerable differences of personal style and temperament, Clarke had much in common with Mayor Marion Barry. Both men came of age in the civil rights movement, both courted arrest in pursuit of home rule, and both shared an early taste for politics populist and transracial.
“They were among the first politicians to cultivate the gay vote and seemed entirely at ease in public housing complexes and senior citizen centers. ….. Like many of his political soul mates, Clarke never seemed entirely comfortable in the suites of political power. Nor did he seem comfortable, some say, questioning the excesses of the 1980s, when District politicians balanced one expensive social program atop another with little regard for the bottom line.
“Yet, critics say, it was the layering of program upon program without regard for accountable management that led to the city’s fiscal crisis and the imposition of the financial control board by Congress. … Jamin Raskin, a professor at American University Law School and a lifelong D.C. resident and activist, said: “The generation of politicians who fought for home rule were long on vision. But their political values were much stronger than their knowledge of running government.”
“James O. Gibson, a former planning director to Barry and head of the D.C. Agenda, spoke to this conflict between activism and governing. “Dave was caught squarely in the middle of the tension of advocating and governing,” Gibson said. “He and Barry and others came out of a movement, but over the years, the Young Turks have become the aging Turks. Their frames of reference are in the distant past. Their causes seemed very old.” (Michael Powell and Vanessa Williams, “D.C. Council Chair David A. Clarke Dies,” The Washington Post, Saturday, March 29, 1977, A01.)
The cause of justice can never be allowed to grow old. But too many compromises — too many compromising positions — became fodder for those who want D.C. to remain a constitutional stepchild, toothless and often infantilized by members of Congress who would be hard pressed to find the Anacostia River on a map let alone find the time to visit Mississippi Avenue. Marion Barry was not the only politician in D.C. with significant problems, but his were largely personal failings. More seriously, several recent members of the D.C. Council have served jail time for official corruption, others remain under investigation as does Mayor Gray who has seen several close associates indicted. The cause of justice is debilitated when politicians put themselves ahead of the people they are sworn to serve.
Pundits today note that the death of Marion Barry signals the true passing of an era. A new generation of political leaders — particularly Mayor-Elect Muriel Bowser and the new generations taking over the D.C. Council — must restore trust and confidence in the city government. Restoring confidence in local government while reinvigorating the once-intense passion for justice for all people in D.C. is the best way today’s leaders can pay tribute to Marion Barry.
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Welcome Puerto Rico Chief Justice Liana Fiol Matta ’67!November 13, 2014
On Wednesday, November 19 at 10:30 am in Social Hall, the Trinity Community will “welcome home” one of our most distinguished alumnae, the Honorable Liana Fiol Matta, Class of 1967, now the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico. What an amazing moment this will be for Trinity as we gather to hear from this eminent jurist!
An English major at Trinity, this aspiring lawyer earned her J.D. degree magna cum laude from the University of Puerto Rico School of Law where she was also editor in chief of the law review, a top honor for any law student. She later earned the Master of Laws and Doctor of Juridical Science degrees from Columbia University.
After law school, Justice Fiol Matta held several significant positions with the Governor of Puerto Rico, and also pursued teaching at several law schools in Puerto Rico. In 1992, she was appointed to the Court of Appeals of Puerto Rico and then became Chief Judge of that court from 1996 to 2002. In 2004, Governor Sila Maria Calderon appointed her to the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico, and in 2014 Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla appointed her as Chief Justice.
You can read more about Chief Justice Fiol Matta in her biography on Trinity’s website.
Chief Justice Fiol Matta is another remarkable exemplar of Trinity’s mission in the education of women for leadership in society. Trinity Women do not sit on the sidelines; in just about every walk of life, we can find graduates of Trinity who are recognized leaders in their places of work and communities. When we consider Trinity’s relatively small size, this university’s leadership output is huge: from former Speaker of the House and now Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi ’62, to former Kansas Governor and former HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius ’70, to Chief Justice Fiol Matta and so many other judges, lawyers, politicians and leaders in the public square, Trinity alumnae play prominent roles across many jurisdictions.
Women continue to face mighty obstacles to advancement and leadership in our society. After the elections earlier this month, some pundits noted that the number of women in the Congress might actually reach 100 — is that really cause for celebration? Women are still less than 25% in the national legislature, still a minority in too many leadership positions in public and private life. Women are still more likely to be objectified than respected (ok, so it’s not scientific, but right now “Kardashian Butt” gets 52 million hits on Google, while “President Hillary” trails with 48 million… I’m just sayin’!)
In the mosh pit of popular educational culture, where big-name universities that can fill giant football stadiums each week get all the television exposure and recruiting advantage, while smaller woman-centered universities like Trinity simply fill classrooms day in and day out, the whole idea of an education that promotes women’s leadership and advancement may seem odd, though we would prefer the term “exceptional.”
Yes, Trinity is exceptional! Trinity does not simply follow the mob when it comes to our educational values and insistence that our mission remains urgent and important in a world that still presents too many barriers to women’s success.
Trinity’s success is clear in the lives and achievements of our graduates, not only those who become famous because of their positions, but even more so in the hard work and great dedication of those who are famous to the children they teach, the clients they serve, the patients they heal, the readers who marvel at their poetry or investigative journalism, the people whose lives become a little easier because of the advocacy and service our graduates deliver quietly and heroically each day in countless nonprofit organizations in communities around the globe.
As we welcome Chief Justice Fiol Matta on Wednesday, November 19, let’s also celebrate once more the many achievements of Trinity graduates who stand out in so many communities as true examples of servant leaders in a society that needs more of each.
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VOTE: Our Most Precious Right and Responsibility!November 2, 2014
I collect a lot of buttons, badges, pins and medals in the course of any given year — but none means more to me than the simple “I Voted” sticker I get each November when I do my civic duty in whatever election is happening. There is something so fundamentally right, important and fulfilling about going to the polls and casting my ballot for candidates and referenda on various issues. Each time I vote, I think about the millions of people on this earth who are not allowed to vote, who have no voice, whose freedom to choose their government is curtailed by tyranny, ignorance, fear and violence.
Not so long ago — in the memory of some of our grandmothers, perhaps — women did not have the right to vote in this country. Worse, and more recently, whether by law or by the fact of racial hatred, African American, Hispanic and other people of different races and ethnicities have suffered violence, intimidation and unjust barriers to their ability to exercise the right to vote. Even now, at this late date in our nation’s history, voter suppression continues; there are factions that want to roll back the clock to those horrific days in the Old South when black citizens faced perniciously crafted legal barriers to voting. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was necessary to eradicate the deliberate efforts of some politicians to block votes.
Sadly, last year the Supreme Court of the United States made a ruling that weakens the Voting Rights Act, and some states have gone so far as to re-institute barriers to voting for citizens who often live at the margins. Under the guise of Voter ID laws, these barriers discriminate against people who cannot produce a driver’s license or other identification. Not all states require Voter ID — at my polling place in College Park, Maryland last week (early voting is a great invention!) all I had to do was give my name and address to be given access to the ballot box. That’s how it should work everywhere in a free country! But even without overt voter suppression tactics, more subtle forms of discouragement for black and Hispanic voters occur in counties where there are not enough polling places, or where the equipment used to record votes is outdated or broken.
But beyond continuing efforts on the part of some corrupt politicians to thwart the rights of citizens, sometimes citizens, themselves, abrogate their rights in the most puzzling way — by not voting at all. What’s up with that? People died, quite literally, to protect our freedoms and rights. How can we possibly betray the passion and sacrifice of those who fought wars, who suffered beatings and even lynchings in order to advance the idea that all people in this democracy must have an equal right to vote.
Here in the District of Columbia, the election is very consequential — a new mayor, members of the City Council, other important political offices that will determine the fate of our city for years to come. You can vote for whomever you choose — what you do in the ballot box is your business only! — but you must exercise your right and responsibility to vote.
Reporters and pollsters are predicting low voter turnout because of apathy and ennui emanating from the too-long campaign season. Get a grip, my friends! Apathy should never be allowed to cast the deciding vote in any election. Whatever jurisdiction is your home, you have a great civic obligation to take the small amount of time required that day to go to the polls and cast your vote.
Voting is our most precious right AND responsibility. I urge all members of the Trinity community to make sure that voting is at the top of your “To Do” list on Tuesday!Read comments (0) Add Comment
Synod StratagemsOctober 19, 2014
If you only read the secular media, you probably think that the recently-concluded Vatican Synod on the Family was a huge disappointment, an ecclesiastical gathering whose primary conclusions were a setback for 21st Century ideas about social relationships. “Catholic Church Scraps Welcome to Gays…” was the headline of the Associated Press story that went out immediately when the Synod report was released, and that headline was repeated in countless newspapers and online stories all weekend.
But the headline is wrong, and like most secular media who make hash of religious news, the AP reporters and headline writers went for the sensational rather than the accurate.
They also missed the really big story.
The really big story is that Pope Francis I directed that the final report from the Synod on the Family include the record of how many bishops voted in favor of or against each paragraph in the report — when has the idea of disagreement and even dissent been a matter of official record in the Catholic Church? The very idea that bishops have about as much disagreement on certain issues as the rest of us is a refreshing new thought. Some people find the very idea of disagreement on religious matters to be offensive — but not the Jesuit Pope who now manifests the respect for the dialogical process that is the hallmark of religious life (and academic life, too!). The transparency inherent in publishing the vote tallies shows a very shrewd strategy on the part of Pope Francis to engage this dialogue in a very serious and progressive way.
The big issues at stake concerned divorced and remarried Catholics and whether they could participate in Communion, and how open the Church might be to new forms of family relationships including single-sex partners. Nobody should expect the Roman Catholic Church to change its rules overnight. But the very fact that these issues are up for pastoral discussion is amazing news.
The other really big story is that the MAJORITY of bishops actually voted in favor of the Synod report’s controversial paragraphs on how to treat divorced and remarried Catholics, and the idea of a pastoral “welcome” for gay persons. [Note: I can't link to the paragraphs here because the report has yet to be translated into English... Rome Time is very different from Internet Time!] While the Synod rules require a 2/3 majority vote to approve a report, the fact remains that the vote tallies show that the majority (but not 2/3) has moved to a more open and progressive place. The secular headlines about “Scraps Welcome….” were sensational but lacking factual nuance. While it is true that an early report from the Synod had more welcoming language, especially on LGBT issues, and the final report was more restrained, the fact remains that a substantial number of bishops — a majority — appear ready to consider important changes in the pastoral approach to these issues.
Anybody who thinks that the Catholic Church will change actual doctrine in a very short period of time is just ignorant of how the Church operates. This is a 2000 year-old-institution where change normally takes centuries. The insatiable need of the Twitterverse to have something to digest every nanosecond is just weird — and look at how the media treats other issues these days, from Ebola to the Hannah Graham story, the sensational headlines are a genuine disservice to rational thought.
The Synod process will go on for another year or more, and during this time we will have many opportunities not only to watch and listen to the bishops, but also to participate in the dialogue process. Already, in the past year, Pope Francis asked bishops to engage parishes in discussions about marriage and family, and they got an earful. In the year ahead, before the next Synod takes place in the fall of 2015, there will be many more dialogues around the world.
I hope that the Trinity community can become involved in this process of dialogue and reflection on the meaning of family today — not only is this relevant for our Catholic mission, but all religions share in the concerns and search for meaning, moral guidance and questions about how to adapt to modern times and modern ways of building familial relationships. Trinity’s very diverse community has a large stake in how these issues unfold, and as a community that emphasizes women’s leadership and role in society, we should have some voice in this discussion.
Meanwhile, if you are interested in following the news of the Synod, I urge you to read broadly beyond the headlines in the popular press to consider at least the commentaries that you can find from Father Thomas Reese, SJ in the National Catholic Reporter or Father James Martin in America Magazine, or John Allen of the Boston Globe and his new website Crux. The Catholic News Service also provides updates on these and many issues in the Church. Of course there are many other sources and I’d be happy to hear from readers about their favorite sources of news about Catholic issues.
More to come as the documents get translated….!!
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Girl Power: Malala’s Nobel Peace PrizeOctober 11, 2014
No better way to observe this International Day of the Girl than to listen to Malala Yousafzai’s response to the news that she won the Nobel Peace Prize. Malala is the youngest recipient of the award which she shares with India’s child rights activist Kailash Satyarthi. “It’s my message to children all around the world that they should stand up for their rights,” she declared, accepting the award on behalf of all the voiceless children of the world.
It’s notable that Malala was in her Chemistry class learning about electrolysis when the news broke, but she did not take the call on a cell phone disrupting class, nor did she dash out from class ignoring her responsibilities. She continued with her classes in Physics and English, only going out to meet the press when school was done for the day. While winning the Nobel Peace Prize is important, she acknowledged that, “It won’t help me in my tests and exams because that totally depends on my hard work.” An excellent perspective for a great student!
Malala’s story is a remarkable tale of true grit, amazing courage in the face of grave threats. At age 11, she became an activist for the education of girls in her native Pakistan. She persisted despite threats from the extremist Taliban terrorists, eventually suffering an assassination attempt in 2012. In a hospital in England, she recovered from a bullet wound to the head and has since continued her advocacy as well as her high school education.
October 11 is the International Day of the Girl, and this year’s theme calls for an end to violence against women and girls and more emphasis on educational opportunities. As Malala’s work and example illustrate, around the world millions of girls and women are deliberately kept illiterate, out of school and away from any opportunities to grow and develop as complete human beings. Even as Malala accepted her prize, in Nigeria several hundred girls who were kidnapped from their school mark a half year in captivity. The civilized world seems to have shuddered and moved on, leaving those young women at the mercy of barbarians.
Here in the United States, too often we see the education of women and girls taken for granted, and yet, even here the problems of gender discrimination and sexual abuse rob women of their potential constantly. From the NFL to college campuses to too many homes and mean streets — regardless of social class or celebrity status or race or ethnicity or religion — women and girls are marginalized, maligned and maltreated in shocking ways each day.
I often get questions about why Trinity sustains our women’s college. Haven’t women arrived? Isn’t the idea of a college devoted to women’s education and advancement something that went out with the 20th Century?
Absolutely not! So long as the CEO of a major company (Microsoft) that employs very few women executives says that women should not ask for raises, so long as professional athletes punch out their women friends, so long as women on too many major university campuses suffer rape and abuse, so long as some of our Trinity students feel an acute lack of family encouragement to go to college, so long as girls like Malala suffer death threats for wanting to go to school to become educated and intellectually fulfilled — so long as women remain excluded and marginalized from decision-making in many of the world’s most powerful organizations of business and finance, policy and politics, religion and civic life — Trinity and women’s colleges like us must persist in our mission.
The best way we can congratulate and recognize Malala’s achievement is to redouble our own advocacy for the education and advancement of women and girls.
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