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Research Papers On Marion Barry

As the District prepares to unveil the Marion Barry Jr. Commemorative Bronze Statue in the Wilson Building, some Washingtonians not know many of the reasons Barry was loved by so many. In anticipation of this milestone, the Library is highlighting some of the ways people can learn more about Marion Barry’s life and legacy.

"Mayor for Life: The Incredible Story of Marion Barry, Jr." 
Marion Barry, Jr. and Omar Tyree.
Four-time mayor of Washington, DC, Marion Barry, Jr. tells his shocking and courageous life story, beginning in the cotton fields in Mississippi to the executive offices of one of the most powerful cities in the world. Known nationally as the disgraced mayor caught on camera smoking crack cocaine in a downtown hotel room with a mistress, Marion Barry Jr. has led a controversial career. This provocative, captivating narrative follows the Civil Rights activist, going back to his Mississippi roots, his Memphis upbringing, and his academic school days, up through his college years and move to Washington, DC, where he became actively involved in Civil Rights, community activism, and bold politics. In “Mayor for Life,” Marion Barry, Jr. tells all--including the story of his campaigns for mayor of Washington, his ultimate rise to power, his personal struggles and downfalls, and the night of embarrassment, followed by his term in federal prison and ultimately a victorious fourth term as mayor. From the man who, despite the setbacks, boldly served the community of Washington, DC. This is his full story of courage, empowerment, hope, tragedy, triumph, and inspiration.

"The Nine Lives of Marion Barry"
HBO Documentary Films in association with Cactus Three; a Flor Films production;
Dana Flor and Toby Oppenheimer
Many people remember Marion Barry as the philandering, drug-addled mayor of the nation's capital. He's the poster boy for corruption, a pariah. Yet to others, Marion Barry is a folk hero who has dominated Washington, D.C. city politics for over 40 years. Today, Barry is once again in the political limelight. Who is Marion Barry, really? A hero? A scoundrel? For the first time, The Nine Lives of Marion Barry reveals the complete unforgettable story.

"The Last of the Black Emperors: The Hollow Comeback of Marion Barry in the New Age of Black Leaders"
Jonetta Rose Barras; photos by Darrow Montgomery.
The 1990 FBI videotape of Washington, D.C. mayor Marion Barry smoking crack transfixed television viewers nationwide. Shouting now-notorious obscenities at the woman who helped agents trap him, Barry was publicly disgraced, his personal and political life apparently wrecked. But in 1994, following his release from federal prison, Barry was elected once more to serve as mayor of the nation's capital. How did Barry pull off his political resurrection? Why are African-Americans so enamored of him? And why, despite his return to power, has Barry's story so dramatically lost promise? In “The Last of the Black Emperors,” author Jonetta Rose Barras explains the many paradoxes of Marion Barry's career, and documents the growth of his racial and political identities parallel with those of his largely black constituency.

"Chocolate City: A History of Race and Democracy in the Nation's Capital"
Chris Myers Asch and George Derek Musgrove
Monumental in scope and vividly detailed, Chocolate City tells the tumultuous, four-century story of race and democracy in our nation's capital. Emblematic of the ongoing tensions between America's expansive democratic promises and its enduring racial realities, Washington often has served as a national battleground for contentious issues, including slavery, segregation, civil rights, the drug war, and gentrification. But D.C. is more than just a seat of government, and authors Chris Myers Asch and George Derek Musgrove also highlight the city's rich history of local activism as Washingtonians of all races have struggled to make their voices heard in an undemocratic city where residents lack full political rights.

"Dream City: Race, Power, and the Decline of Washington, D.C."
Harry Jaffe and Tom Sherwood
With a new afterword covering the two decades since its first publication, two of Washington, D.C.'s most respected journalists expose one of America's most tragic ironies: how the nation's capital, often a gleaming symbol of peace and hope, is the setting for vicious contradictions and devastating conflicts over race, class, and power. Jaffe and Sherwood have chillingly chronicled the descent of the District of Columbia-congressional hearings, gangland murders, the establishment of home rule and the inside story of Marion Barry's enigmatic dynasty and disgrace Now their afterword narrates the District's transformation in the last twenty years. New residents have helped bring developments, restaurants, and businesses to reviving neighborhoods. The authors cover the rise and fall of Mayors Adrian Fenty and Vince Gray, how new corruption charges are taking down politicians and businessmen, and how a fading Barry is still a player. The "city behind the monuments" remains flawed and polarized, but its revival is turning it into a distinct world capital - almost a dream city.

To learn about Marion Barry from people who knew and worked with him, the Library is co-hosting a symposium, "Fire and Fiery: The Social, Political, and Economic Impact of the Marion Barry Legacy Today and Tomorrow" on February 28. To reserve a free ticket, click here. 

To reserve a seat for the statue dedication on March, 3, click here.

On Jan. 18, 1990, Mayor Barry was arrested in a Washington hotel room while smoking crack cocaine and groping a woman who was not his wife. The arrest, videotaped in an undercover operation, caused a sensation, but it was hardly a surprise: The public had known of his womanizing for years, and there had been rumors of drug use. Nor was he a stranger to the bottle.

Convicted of a misdemeanor cocaine possession, Mr. Barry was sentenced to six months in prison. His fall from grace was especially poignant for those old enough to remember the bright promise and idealism of his youth.

He was born on March 6, 1936, in Itta Bena, Miss. His father, also named Marion, died when he was 4, and his mother, Mattie, moved to Memphis, where she remarried. Her new husband, David Cummings, was a butcher, and she worked as a domestic to support eight children.

Young Marion picked cotton, waited on tables and delivered newspapers. He became an Eagle Scout and earned a degree in chemistry from LeMoyne College in Memphis in 1958.

His middle initial, S., originally stood for nothing, but in the late 1950s he adopted the middle name Shepilov, after Dmitri T. Shepilov, a purged member of the Soviet Communist Party. As a sophomore, Mr. Barry joined the LeMoyne chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and became chapter president his senior year.

While studying for his master’s degree at Fisk University in Nashville, he organized a campus N.A.A.C.P. chapter. Early in 1960, he helped organize the first lunch counter sit-ins in Nashville. That April, he and other student leaders met with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to establish the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Mr. Barry became its first national chairman.

After a year as a teaching assistant at the University of Kansas, he began studying for a doctorate in chemistry at the University of Tennessee. He abandoned his studies a few credits short and began working full time for S.N.C.C.

In June 1965 he moved to Washington, where reporters occasionally referred to him as a “dashiki-clad militant.” A powerful speaker and street campaigner, he began pressing for home rule for the District of Columbia. He had found fertile political soil, since residents had only recently won the right to vote in presidential elections and had virtually no say in governing themselves.

In 1967, Mr. Barry started a jobs program for poor blacks, winning federal grants worth several million dollars. He won his first election in February 1970, to a citizens’ board created to smooth relations between police officers and black residents. He was later president of the school board and a member of the City Council.

On March 9, 1977, he was shot during a takeover of a Washington office building by members of the Hanafi Muslim sect. The bullet narrowly missed his heart, but Mr. Barry was back at work by the end of the month.

The next year he ran for mayor and defeated the incumbent, Walter E. Washington, who had become the District of Columbia’s first elected mayor four years earlier, and the City Council president, Sterling Tucker, in the Democratic primary, making his election in November a certainty in that overwhelmingly Democratic city.

‘Our Drive Toward Greatness’

“Let this day signal our drive toward greatness,” he told a cheering crowd on Jan. 2, 1979, as he was sworn in for the first time by Justice Thurgood Marshall of the Supreme Court.

At first, Washington seemed to undergo a renaissance with Mr. Barry as mayor. Downtown boomed as vacant lots and abandoned buildings gave way to smart new offices, hotels and restaurants. But as the political honeymoon faded, Mr. Barry’s critics complained that conditions in the poorest black neighborhoods were deteriorating even as he used the city government as an employment agency for his followers.

His detractors said he held on to power by cynically telling blacks that the only alternative to him was restoration of a quasi-colonial white power. Indeed, he exploited memories of the decades in which congressional chairmen, typically white Southerners, gave short shrift to the Washington beyond the gleaming edifices of the federal government.

Several people close to Mr. Barry were implicated in scandals. A deputy mayor was sent to prison for embezzling city funds. One of Mr. Barry’s former wives (he was married four times) went to prison for embezzling money from the job-training and antipoverty organization he had founded. When she was released, he found her another city job.

His defenders pointed to Washington’s unique situation as a city with no state to look to for financial aid, no heavy industry to tax and many tax-exempt government buildings. Many people who work in Washington commute from Maryland and Virginia and pay no District of Columbia taxes.

Part of Mr. Barry’s tenure coincided with a nationwide crack cocaine epidemic, and Washington’s poorest neighborhoods suffered as much as any in the country. At its nadir, Washington had both the highest infant mortality rate and the highest homicide rate of any city in the United States. Drugs were peddled openly on many corners, and homeless people slept on heating grates within sight of the White House. The Fire Department could handle only a single two-alarm blaze at a time.

Young black men fared badly year after year. One study found that by 1991, 42 percent of the district’s black men ages 18 to 35 were in prison, on probation or on parole, released on bond or sought by the police.

More and more middle-class people, black and white, fled to the suburbs after despairing of getting a good public education for their children, getting their garbage picked up or getting their streets plowed after snowstorms.

But the mayor seemed not to worry about such complaints, just as he seemed not to care about appearing to be hypocritical. In October 1986, for instance, he announced that he would convene a “D.C. drug summit” of experts to discuss the cocaine epidemic at a time when the mayor himself was rumored to be a user.

“I may not be perfect,” he said a month later, after his election to a third term, “but I am perfect for Washington.”

In January 1987, Mr. Barry went to Los Angeles for the Super Bowl game between the New York Giants and the Denver Broncos at the Rose Bowl. His detractors noted that while he was watching football and partying afterward in sunny Southern California, his constituents were being buried under a knee-deep snowfall that clogged Washington streets.

The mayor’s Super Bowl vacation was interrupted by a visit to a hospital. Mr. Barry said he had suffered a flare-up of his hiatal hernia. An associate said he had overdosed. There would be other medical crises in which he claimed exhaustion or indigestion and people close to him blamed alcohol or drugs.

But the mayor seemed immune to embarrassment. In early 1988, with the District of Columbia’s government slumping under debt and its payroll bloated, he led a delegation of 17 city officials to the Virgin Islands. The stated purpose of the junket was to help the islands’ officials overhaul their personnel system.

Arrest and Return

In 1989 Mr. Barry was called before a federal grand jury investigating whether a woman had sold drugs to city officials, including the mayor. He acknowledged having had a relationship with her but denied buying drugs.

He was arrested just as he was about to announce that he was running for mayor again. In 1990, after a two-month trial, he was convicted of one misdemeanor count of drug possession and acquitted of another misdemeanor. The jury could not agree on another 12 counts, including three felony charges that he had lied to the grand jury.

The verdict was a near-victory for Mr. Barry. Had he been convicted of a felony, he could not have sought office again. But in 1990, Mr. Barry suffered the only electoral defeat of his career. As an independent, he finished third in a race for an at-large City Council seat.

After serving his sentence in a minimum-security prison in Virginia, he was easily elected to the City Council in 1992.

In the 1994 Democratic primary for mayor, he defeated Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly, who had been unable in her single term to turn the city around, and several other candidates.

“Amazing grace, how sweet it sounds to save a wretch like me!” he exulted on the night of Sept. 13, 1994. In November, he cruised to victory over his Republican opponent.

But the problems that had dogged the city during his first three terms continued into his fourth. The government sagged under the weight of accumulated debt. The payroll remained heavy, even though the city’s population had been dwindling for years: While Mr. Barry was in office, the city lost 115,000 residents, leaving it with just over 520,000 in January 1999, the fewest since 1933. (By 2013, the district’s population had increased to about 646,000, according to the Census Bureau.)

In April 1995 an exasperated Congress created the District of Columbia Financial Control Board to oversee city spending. In August 1997, Congress stripped Mr. Barry of much of his remaining power, turning over nine major operating departments to the board.

Mr. Barry called the move a “rape of democracy.” Though he was now a figurehead, there was widespread speculation that he would try for still another term. But on May 21, 1998, he announced that he would not.

“For all of you who have supported me, I love you so much,” he said that day. “I love this city.” The control board shined a spotlight on Anthony A. Williams, a bow-tied number cruncher who had been credited with helping the city out of its mess as its chief financial officer. Mr. Williams was elected mayor in 1998 and served two terms marked by a more businesslike, if less colorful, approach to governing.

Although the trial on cocaine charges was Mr. Barry’s most serious encounter with the law, it was but one of many run-ins with the authorities. In July 2000 Mr. Barry was accused of shoving a female janitor in a restroom at Baltimore-Washington International Airport. He pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault and was sentenced to community service.

In March 2002 he announced that he would run for City Council, but he withdrew after the United States Park Police found traces of crack cocaine and marijuana in his car, which was illegally parked, later that month. No charges were filed, and Mr. Barry said he had been framed.

Despite his clashes with the law, he won a City Council seat in 2004. The next year he pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor charges for failing to file income tax returns for the year 2000. He was placed on probation for three years. Yet he continued to defy the I.R.S., neglecting for the next several years to file returns. He finally settled with the tax agency in 2009, saying that his failure to file had been the result of his health.

He had no such excuse in 2010, when the City Council stripped him of a committee chairmanship and censured him for steering a consulting contract to a sometime girlfriend (who had once had him arrested on accusations of stalking her, though the charges were later dropped). Mr. Barry apologized for his “lack of sound judgment” on the contract.

Mr. Barry also had trouble on the road. In August 2014, after he was slightly injured in a crash while driving on the wrong side of the street, it was revealed that he had accumulated some $2,800 in fines for moving violations and parking infractions. He finally paid up.

Various theories have been advanced to explain how Mr. Barry survived scandals that made him a laughingstock for television comedians and would have destroyed lesser politicians. Writing in The New Yorker in 1994 about that year’s mayoral campaign, David Remnick saw that Mr. Barry’s flaws actually helped him, especially among impoverished black people who feared that white businessmen and other elitists were conspiring to take back the power that black Washingtonians had gained.

“No one has a more acute feeling for the divides of the city and their political possibilities than Marion Barry,” Mr. Remnick wrote after spending considerable time with the mayor on the campaign trail.

Looking Back

“What Barry grasps intuitively — and what comes as a shock to most whites — is the political potential of conspiracy thinking,” Mr. Remnick wrote. Indeed, years afterward, Mr. Barry blamed a racist conspiracy for his trial and imprisonment for cocaine. “They didn’t want me creating all of these opportunities for black folks,” he wrote in his autobiography, published by Simon & Schuster in June.

Co-written by Omar Tyree, “Mayor for Life” indulged in some revisionist history and selective amnesia. As Marc Fisher pointed out in reviewing the book for The Washington Post, Mr. Barry asserted at one point that news media reports of his womanizing “were all unfounded.” Yet a hundred pages later, Mr. Barry conceded that he “got involved with women who sometimes were not good for me.”

In an interview with The New York Times shortly after the book’s release, Mr. Barry denied that his personal troubles and run-ins with the law had hindered the progress he sought for the poorest Washington residents.

“I serve as an inspiration for those who are going through all kinds of things,” Mr. Barry said. “Whatever storm they’re going through, they can learn from me.”

Mr. Barry is survived by his wife, Cora Masters Barry, and his son, Marion Christopher Barry.

What Mr. Barry bequeathed to Washington, and his motives, are likely to be debated for years.

“One reason he was so good at the political game, some of his friends thought, was because so little of it really meant anything to him,” David Halberstam wrote in “The Children” in 1998, about the early days of the civil rights movement. “He was largely free of causes, save his own. His agenda was always primarily about himself.”

But Mr. Fisher, in his review of Mr. Barry’s book, wrote that “no other mayor has come close to his achievement in providing first jobs for poor young black residents.” Nevertheless, Mr. Fisher added, “black poverty remains deeply entrenched in the District, and his administration had little to show for its efforts to curb crime or improve schools.”

Sam Smith, editor of The Progressive Review, who knew Mr. Barry since 1966, had a subtler perspective in the twilight of his public career:

“It’s like going out into a field and seeing an old rusting-out hulk of a car and trying to imagine what it was like when it was brand-new. What people are seeing now is that corroded shell of what Barry was, and if you don’t remember that, it’s very hard to see.”

Continue reading the main story
Correction: November 23, 2014

An earlier version of this obituary misstated the position Anthony A. Williams held before being elected to succeed Mr. Barry as mayor of Washington in 1998. He had been the city’s chief financial officer — not chairman of the District of Columbia Financial Control Board. The earlier version also misstated details of Mr. Barry’s conviction. He was found guilty of one cocaine charge, not cocaine charges.

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