Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,309

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,309


This is the grave of Marion Barry.

Born in 1936 in Itta Bena, Mississippi, Barry grew up poor in Memphis, where his mother moved after his father died in 1940. Barry’s family situation stabilized after his mother remarried and he became an Eagle Scout, as well as someone who was highly angry about the racism he faced. The family was doing better, but Barry had to pick cotton as a child too. So he also understood economic inequality. As a newspaper delivery boy, he qualified in a contest the paper had to go to New Orleans because he signed up so many subscribers. The paper seemed surprised that any Black kids would qualify because it forgot about Jim Crow laws. So it told him and the other Black kids that they couldn’t go. Newspaper couldn’t afford two buses. He and others protested and quit until the situation was fixed. The newspaper sent them to St. Louis instead. He realized that collective action could work.

In 1955, Barry enrolled at LeMoyne-Owen College in Memphis. He began to get more involved with the NAACP while there and by the time he graduated in 1958, was a committed civil rights worker. He was even nearly expelled for criticizing one of the college’s white trustees for saying racist things (the first part of Ellison’s Invisible Man is a great entry point into the role of these white trustees at HBCUs).

Barry moved to Nashville after graduation to do graduate studies at Fisk and received a master’s in chemistry in 1960. He went to the University of Kansas for a Ph.D. but decided on civil rights work instead. He was arrested several times during the Nashville sit-in movement and was the first chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee when it formed after the Greensboro sit-in movement in 1960. He helped develop the voter registration project in McComb, Mississippi, which in 1964 because famous during Freedom Summer. He was still interested in chemistry though. The University of Tennessee had just desegregated so he enrolled in a doctorate program in Knoxville. But when he was told he could not teach white students, he quit and went back to SNCC.

Barry was a huge figure in the student movement of the 1960s. Because of his later mistakes, we often forget just how huge he was. He’s as important as John Lewis, Julian Bond, Diane Nash, James Bevel, Robert Moses, or any of the other people that were SNCC leaders in these years. He was a critical part of the Mississippi project and was also part of the attempts to get the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party recognized at the 1964 Democratic National Convention. I mean, this is a real leader, an absolute hero and legend.

In 1965, Barry moved to Washington, D.C., to start a local chapter of SNCC there. SNCC was changing rapidly. The defeat of the MFDP in 1964 plus the growing influence of Black Power and incredible anger at the slow pace of civil rights change (remember, it was these people’s friends getting murdered out there) led to the organization’s radicalization. A new form of Black protest and politics was developing. Barry left SNCC in 1967, a year before the organization imploded.

Barry started a program in Washington to build employment opportunities for Black men. They raised money to hire young people to clean up the city. This was the kind of new urban organizing that didn’t get the same level of publicity as the big protests of earlier in the 60s, but which was key in the next stage of Black organizing. For an ambitious man like Barry, it also helped him build a personal political base. By the early 1970s, this was where a lot of the SNCC activists were moving. They were in various cities building up power–Andrew Young, Maynard Jackson, John Lewis, Julian Bond, etc. Atlanta was really the center of this, but there were Black political power movements across the country and Barry came to dominate this in Washington.

Barry was elected to the Washington Board of Education in 1971 and immediately became its leader. He began promoting some of the conservative culture war stuff that was not uncommon among the new Black political elite in the 70s (remember Jesse Jackson’s anti-abortion period). He formed a group to boycott the film Superfly for glamorizing drugs, for example, which is just a ridiculous politics. I’m hardly the film is a good role model, but as I think we all known by now, this kind of cultural reactionary stuff does little to attract anyone into any sort of progressive politics.

In 1974, Barry became a city councilor as the city finally had the power to elect people. While in that job, he was in the wrong place at the wrong time and was shot near the heart by Hanafi Muslims (extremist NOI guys, in case the Nation wasn’t extreme enough for you) in a hostage taking attempt. Although wounded, Barry helped negotiate the end of the standoff, which only raised his profile even more in the city. He then ran for mayor in 1978. He won. A political empire was born.

When did Marion Barry break bad? I’m not entirely sure, and it depends on what you mean by that anyway. There was an image in the late 70s that Black political leadership would change everything but it really didn’t. A lot of these people ended up just as pro-white business as any white mayor could ever want. That wasn’t really Barry, but he had the other problem, which was ruling as if he was dictator and feeling there were no consequences for his actions. Barry was nearly unbeatable after his 1982 reelection victory. He built a huge empire on government jobs, many of which were divvied out through patronage networks and might or might not have any actual function or use. This was hard for a city to maintain though–it still had congressional oversight and not a huge budget.

Of course, much about the 80s was out of the control of any mayor. It was the era of crack and of gang warfare. There weren’t good jobs in the cities. The nation was fully committed to the white suburbs. So DC became a tough city, one ridden with violent crime, which made it no different than Los Angeles or The Bronx or Atlanta or Chicago or just about anywhere else. I don’t think there’s anything Barry could have done about this. If anything, giving people semi-fake jobs was as good an idea as any. At least it found a way to get non-drug money into people’s pockets.

But Barry really did run the city like his personal fiefdom. I think in the end, he equated his personal power with Black rights generally. If he was doing well, so was the city and his people. This is hardly unknown in American history, regardless of race. But Barry lost the thread. Part of it was that he was partying big time. He was known to show up at clubs and do cocaine. Again, this was a very late 70s/early 80s move for lots of white politicians too. He started giving huge government contracts to his buddies without any oversight and lots of the money that was supposed to go to schools or hospitals just got stolen.

Jesse Jackson considered running against Barry in 1986. By this time, Barry had burned a lot of bridges, Jackson was super famous after his Rainbow Coalition campaign in 1984, and DC definitely needed new leadership. But that didn’t happen. He ran away with the election and then his drug use moved from occasional to full fledged addiction. Was Barry set up, as he claimed, when he freebased cocaine in a hotel room with his ex-girlfriend? Yeah, he was. The FBI, who hated him, had been investigating him for a long time and convinced said girlfriend to lure him into a hotel room and offer him cocaine. So he could later claim that like Black people generally, he was set up by a racist police system. And it isn’t even untrue. But of course no one made him freebase coke. Barry faced charged, ended up getting six months in federal prison, and lost the 1990 mayoral election.

Mostly, Barry became a national joke. I mean, like anyone my age, this would be the only thing I’d remember Barry for if I hadn’t read deeply in civil rights history. It was all on the talk shows. It became an indictment not just of Barry and not just of the state of the cities, but of Black political leadership. Sigh.

Barry came back though. You think a drug offense and conviction was going to keep him down with his base? C’mon, they’d all been through that, or family members had. He ran for city council immediately upon his 1992 release and won in a landslide. He then returned to the mayor’s office in 1994. Yes, the city’s elites were completely against him and many Black residents were disgusted too, but he still won with 56 percent of the vote. Mostly, his new mayoral term was wrapped up in the city’s unbelievably bad fiscal crisis, which had only gotten worse under the mayor who replaced him. The Clinton administration finally bailed out of the city, but also stripped Barry of hiring and firing authority over most public agencies, which was the core of his political power. So he decided against running again in 1998.

But you couldn’t keep Barry down. He returned to the city council and, in a sign of his age and continued move toward cultural conservatism, voted against DC recognizing same sex marriages performed elsewhere. He was busted for tax evasion in 2005 and was put on probation after being found guilty. He continued to try and avoid taxes and battled with the IRS for the rest of his life. He started ranting against Asians buying property in DC, which was theoretically an anti-gentrification move but was also racist. Finally, Barry’s heart gave out in 2014. He was 78 years old.

Marion Barry is buried in Congressional Cemetery, Washington, D.C.

If you would like this series to visit other SNCC leaders, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Luckily, most of them turned out a lot better than Barry! John Lewis is in Atlanta and Oretha Castle Haley is in Metairie, Louisiana. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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