Mayor-for-Life Gets His Due


“He was the mayor-for-life and built a foundation for Black people in D.C.,” said Anise Jenkins, the executive director for Stand Up! for Democracy, an advocacy organization that supports statehood for the District. “He was a wonderful mayor who empowered Black people and empowered all people.”

The late Marion Barry will be honored with a statue at the John A. Wilson Building on March 3. (Courtesy photo)

Jenkins is referring, of course, to Marion Barry, a larger than life figure that dominated the D.C. political scene from the 1970s until his death in 2014. Barry will be honored with the unveiling of his statue March 3 in front of the John A. Wilson Building.

The ceremony will start at 11:30 a.m. at 1350 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W. and there will be seating for the event at Freedom Plaza, which is located across the street. D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) and the members of the D.C. Council are expected to attend, along with members of the Commission to Commemorate and Recognize the Honorable Marion Barry Jr., and former mayors and council members.

Barry came to the District in 1965 as the city’s main Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s organizer. In the next few years, Barry co-founded Pride, a job training program for unemployed Black men and the Free D.C. Movement that focused on the District getting a vote and self-determination from the U.S. Congress.

Barry was elected to an at-large position on the school board in 1971 and was seated in 1972. He served as president of the board before he was elected as an at-large member of the D.C. Council in 1974 and was re-elected in 1976.

In an event that made national news, Barry was shot on March 9, 1977 by members of the Hanafi Muslims at the District Building. Barry recovered two days later and became a hero in the eyes of many Washingtonians.

In 1978, Barry challenged then District Mayor Walter Washington and defeated him and D.C. Council Chairman Sterling Tucker in the September Democratic mayoral primary and won overwhelming in the November general election.

Barry became mayor in 1979 and led the District until 1991. During his tenure he is credited for creating the summer youth jobs program, mandating that 35 percent of all District government businesses go to minority (African American) firms and creating jobs and contracting opportunities that strengthened the city’s Black middle class.

“Everyone in Ward 4 that has a decent house and who has retired from the District government have Marion Barry to thank for that,” Kathy Henderson, an advisory neighborhood commissioner in Ward 5 and a candidate for the Ward 5 D.C. Council seat, told the AFRO. “He broke that glass ceiling in the District government.”

On Jan. 18, 1990, Barry was arrested for crack cocaine use and possession in a FBI sting operation. In August 1990, there was a trial in which Barry was convicted of a single cocaine possession count and was ultimately given a six-month sentence by U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson.

Barry didn’t run for re-election in 1990 but opted for the D.C. Council at-large race as an independent.

He lost the November 1990 general election to the Statehood Party’s candidate Hilda Mason. It was the only loss of his political career.

Barry began serving a six-month sentence at a correctional facility in Petersburg, Va., and also served part of that time in a Loretto, Pa. facility. He was released in April 1992.

That year, Barry challenged D.C. Council member Wilhelmina Rolark (D-Ward 8) for her position and won the September Democratic primary decisively, with 70 percent of the vote. After representing Ward 8 residents on the council for two years, Barry launched his bid to defeat the incumbent mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly.

Barry defeated Kelly in the September 1994 Democratic primary and went on to win the November general election. Barry served as mayor—his fourth term—from 1995-1999.

Jenkins said she heard that some representatives and senators weren’t happy with Barry being the mayor again.

“That’s why the Congress gave D.C. its control board,” she said, referring to the body of unelected officials who controlled the District’s finances from 1995-2001 and was created because the city was hundreds of millions of dollars in the red. “The members of Congress wanted to punish us for having the gall to re-elect Marion Barry.”

Jenkins said that many members of Congress were mad at Barry “because he didn’t know his place.”

Barry left public service after his fourth term as mayor ended in 1999.

In 2004, Barry ran for re-election to the D.C. Council, taking on longtime friend and ally, D.C. Council member Sandy Allen and defeated her for re-election in the September Democratic primary. He won the 2004 November general election and served on the council until his death at the age of 78 in November 2014.

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser set up the Barry Commission to explore ways to honor the four-term mayor. One of the ways to honor him, according to the commission, was with a statute of him at the Wilson Building.

The likeness, known as the Marion Barry Jr. Commemorative Bronze Statue, is eight-feet tall and is in bronze, according to photos of it that have been publicly revealed. Steven Weitzman of Weitzman Studios did the statute.

Henderson said she will definitely be at the event in recognition of Barry’s work.

“I essentially became an adult in the city under Marion Barry,” she said. “I worked on his 1994 council campaign and it was amazing to watch him work.”

She did confess her unhappiness with “all the things that he did” but never questioned his commitment to everyday people.

“His service to people was a higher calling,” she said.