Marion Barry

Former District of Columbia Mayor Marion Barry.

In a new book, Washington D.C.’s four-term mayor Marion S. Barry Jr. tells the story of his life and political career over a span of 40 years.Entitled, “Mayor for Life: The Incredible Story of Marion Barry, Jr.,” the book will be of interest to any student of D.C. history. It may also be a blueprint for other Black officials around the country for getting Blacks get ahead in the midst of racism, the pitfalls of holding a political office and how to overcome constant attacks by the mainstream media.

Barry, 77, has been the subject of many negative news reports locally and faced alleged scandals that never panned out. Now at peace with himself, the four-time mayor of Washington, D.C. tells his life story, from the cotton fields of Mississippi to the executive offices of one of the most powerful cities in the world.

“I’m tired of other people in the media trying to tell my story. So I started thinking it was time for me to tell it myself and the way I want to tell it,” Barry wrote. “Most people don’t know me. They don’t know my work ethics, and they don’t know me as a person.”

“Mayor for Life: The Incredible Story of Marion Barry, Jr.,” the book.

The book describes the policies and victories of his first term, and details the events during his second term that lead to the Vista Hotel incident–and how he emerged from a jail sentence and stint in rehab to find that his constituents’ trust in him had not diminished.

The son of the South describes how his mother left his father, who was content with being a sharecropper in Itta Bena, Miss. for a better life in Memphis. Barry describes how her hands were curled from picking cotton, bringing forth her pain and suffering.

With a ready-made family of four, his mother married twice, finally settling down with a man who had four children of his own. She gave birth to two more children, with Barry being the eldest of two boys.

“So I learned a lot about leadership and responsibility, even in our own household. And I was surrounded by young women,” writes Barry.

At an early age, Barry said he decided to take on the status quo by organizing a group of young Black paper carriers to receive equal treatment as the Whites.

“This was one of the first times I stood up to segregation, but it definitely wasn’t the last,” said Barry. “People wouldn’t just give you what you wanted. You had to organize yourself with plans to take it.”

Barry graduated from LeMoyne-Owen College as a biology and chemistry major. Before leaving the college, Barry wrote a timely letter published in a college newsletter about a White trustee of the institution’s racist statement about Blacks, saying they should be thankful that they ride the back of the bus. He called for an apology or dismissal of the trustee, and his defiance led him to be recognized by leaders of the Civil Rights Movement.

Thereafter, Barry attended Fisk University and earned his master’s in chemistry. He spent one year at the University of Kansas and three years at University of Tennessee working on his doctorate in chemistry.  Although his education was foremost in his mind, he involved himself with organized nonviolent movements. “I didn’t just speak out. I organized people with plans of execution for success,” he wrote.

Barry’s activism grew in 1965 when he was sent by James Forman, the first executive director of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, (SNCC) to Washington, D.C., to prepare for the coming of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

“I had built up a reputation around Washington as a hard-nosed civil rights activist with street smarts, a business sense and a ‘Free D.C.’ agenda, while wearing a dashiki, an Afro, and sometimes carrying a gun,” he wrote.

After realizing D.C. was ripe for his kind of politics, Barry decided to stay and realize his vision of changing it from a sleepy Southern town to a hub where Blacks rose up from the ranks, educated themselves, became homeowners and productive citizens, held government jobs with benefits and security, were properly awarded government contracts and became elected leaders in the nation’s capital. The unstoppable Barry Machine swiftly rose to power.

“Washington, D.C. had never seen my style of politics,” Barry wrote. “I would walk right up, knock on people’s doors and tell them what they needed to do.”

Over the span of two decades, Barry transformed Black neighborhoods from alleys to beautiful communities of working class people. Although still segregated by wealth, under Barry Blacks continued to prosper until the crack epidemic of the 1980s.

Although there have been many setbacks to Black productivity, Barry laid out how he continues to help Blacks living the District through racist drug policies, HIV/AIDS epidemic, high unemployment, predatory lending schemes, massive foreclosures and now gentrification.

Barry spends several chapters on unwise decisions that he made going to parties, drinking, drugging, womanizing and the hefty price he paid for it.

“There were always rumors about me womanizing and drinking as the mayor of Washington,” he wrote. “That was one of the downsides of being a popular mayor. I was constantly being talked about in every which way.”

Barry’s take on the infamous FBI sting that landed him in federal prison is very descriptive with storylines perfect for a movie. Readers’ hearts may race leading up to the very moment when FBI agents crashed the hotel room and their female accomplice vanishes, estranged from her mother and family in a witness protection program for two decades.

“I don’t want my life and legacy to be all about what happened to me at the Vista Hotel,” he wrote. “That’s why it was so important to write this book. I want people to know all of the details of my life and the battles that I’ve won for so many thousands of poor, underrepresented and left-out black folks in America. My life is much more than that one embarrassing event on January 18, 1990.”

Barry lays out a story of courage, empowerment, hope, tragedy, triumph, and inspiration.

“I was the mayor of Washington for an unprecedented sixteen years … and with the way I ran the city, creating the most opportunities for Black and White people, it will unlikely ever happen again,” he wrote.

Valencia Mohammed

Special to the AFRO