alt.obituaries Memorial Deadpool
Eagle Scout, Chemist, “Mayor for
March 1936–November 23, 2014
Marion Barry, the flamboyant and
powerful four-term mayor of Washington, D.C., died on November 23 at the age of
78, after a short stay in a Washington hospital. Much is known about Barry’s
well-publicized successes and failures in his life as a politician. Much less
is known about his life before he arrived in Washington in 1965 as the dashiki-wearing,
confrontational chairman of the civil-rights organization SNCC.
Marion Barry began life in the
Mississippi delta as the son of a 16-year-old mother and a 42-year-old father. His
parents were sharecroppers. His parents did not stay together long. His mother
moved to Memphis, and young Marion came along. As a young man, Barry was industrious,
smart, and ambitious. He had numerous newspaper delivery routes while selling another
paper on the corner. He did well in school and became an Eagle Scout.
One of the more surprising aspects
of Marion Barry’s life was his interest in chemistry. He attended LeMoyne
College in Memphis, received a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, and went on to
earn his master’s degree in chemistry at Fisk University. He was working on his
doctorate in chemistry at the University of Tennessee when he, like many other
college students of that era, got caught up in, and joined, the civil rights
movement in the early 1960s.
He became the founding Chairman of
SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), a more aggressive civil-rights
organization than the conservative NAACP. After moving to Washington in 1965,
he organized SNCC protests such as a “mancott” of the D.C. transit system after
a fare increase. He was known for his “in your face” style to get things done.
In 1967 he resigned from SNCC and
started Pride Inc., recruiting 1,000 D.C. teenagers to help clean up alleys and
streets of trash, rats, and other signs of urban neglect. Pride Inc. was funded
by a grant from the federal government; thus began Marion Barry’s transition
from the fringe to the establishment, and soon, government.
His rise in government was fast. He
ran for his first elected office, on the D.C. Board of Education, in 1971; won;
and became Board President in 1972. In 1975 he ran for City Council and won. In
1978 he ran for Mayor and won. His transformation from dashikis to tailored
suits was complete. Of the change, he said “I’m a situationist.” That he was.
Washington, D.C., was going through
its own transformation. It had recently been released from servitude to
Congress and had achieved home rule. This allowed Barry to encourage an
aggressive building boom while hiring youth for summer jobs, expanding programs
for the needy, and adding many management positions for young minorities to a
previously hidebound city government. He also hired the right people to bring
order to the city’s disorganized finances and put the city on a solid footing.
He ran for and won two more terms
for mayor, and earned the title “Mayor for Life,” which also became the title
of his autobiography. His entourage grew as he traveled the city in a
chauffeured limo with security detail, hangers-on, and attractive women. He had
four failed marriages along the way.
By the time he announced a run for
his fourth term in 1989, he was well into drug addiction. When a one-time
girlfriend invited him to visit her in a Washington hotel in January 1990, he
was taped by the FBI fondling her, asking for drugs, and smoking a crack pipe. The
arrest was also taped, and he uttered his most famous quote, “Bitch set me up.”
He made the customary public mea-culpa press conference three days later, and
went into rehab for seven weeks.
Indicted on 13 counts of drug
possession and perjury, he was only convicted on one count of cocaine
possession. He served six months in federal prison, but his bad habits followed
him. He was punished for having a female prison visitor perform oral sex on him
during his stay.
Out of prison, Barry returned to
Washington as a conquering hero, was reelected to City Council, and ran for and
won his fourth term as mayor in 1995.
By that time the jig was up. The
city was suffering from bad finances and the AIDS, crack, and crime epidemics. Congress
stepped in and put the city under a Fiscal Control Board, which ultimately
emasculated the position of mayor. Barry was a realist and left office after
his fourth term, but he just couldn’t give up government, and he won a seat on
City Council and held it until the end of his life. He kept winning despite a
drug relapse, poor health, failed marriages, and personal financial problems. Only
death and prison would end his 43-year span of elected office.
The “power corrupts” axiom of Lord
Acton* often comes to mind when considering Marion Barry’s legacy.
One of the funnier stories about
Marion Barry that I read occurred just after he was elected to his first term. He
had walked to a nearby Popeye’s and, resplendent in his fashionable tailored
suit, carried a red box of fried chicken back to his office. Someone mentioned that
it didn’t look right for the new mayor to be seen carrying a box of fried
chicken in public. Henceforth, an assistant always did the carrying.
A key source for this obit was the
*"Power tends to corrupt, and
absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men."
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