Marion Barry, the District of Columbia’s Mayor for Life, has died.
And while it would be so simple to remember the polarizing politician as the caricature he played such a large role in creating, that would be a monumental mistake.
The former city councilman and four-term mayor was nothing short of a living, breathing testament to fortitude.
Sure, the images that immediately come to mind for most are those that made living easy for comedy writers for so long. “Bitch set me up” is a quote that took on a life of its own. The self-proclaimed night owl went to jail for possessing crack cocaine. He seemed to be constantly on the verge of ruination as the result of some personal issue or technical legal matter.
Yet, Barry always bounced back ― such as when he won another term as mayor after serving his prison sentence ― and that confounded his critics. (“Crack Mayor Dead at 78,” really TMZ?)
What they failed to understand was that at his core Barry was a man of the people. He unabashedly stood up for the underrepresented, literally taking a bullet during the course of his service.
A sharecropper’s son, Barry earned a master’s degree in chemistry from Fisk University. He became a civil rights activist, participating in sit-ins and serving as the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
He moved to Washington, launching his political career with stints on the school board and city council. Barry was shot near the heart in 1977 when when Hanafi Muslims seized the district building. In 1978, Barry began his journey as mayor. He balanced the budget, implemented the wildly popular summer jobs program for youth and advocated for minority businesses. Not only was he popular among the disenfranchised, but enjoyed the support of White power brokers early in his career.
Barry never forgot who he was fighting for and they stood solidly by him. At age 78, a lifetime of service comes to a close.
Civil Rights champion Rev. James Lawson may have best summed up the Barry legacy.
“The whole business of drugs and what not in my judgment does not deny the fact that he was a strong organizer of people, and he sympathized and empathized with people in their plight,” Lawson told the Associated Press. “Along the way, he did a lot good on behalf of people.”