(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.