Marion Barry, Jr. was the longest-serving mayor of Washington, D.C. The people and the pundits of DC gave him the moniker “Mayor for Life” because, after holding the Mayor’s office from 1979 through 1992, he left politics because of his personal challenges. Then he made an amazing comeback, to regain the mayoralty in 1995. Then, after another break from politics, he was elected to the Ward 8 City Council, serving from 2005 until his death in 2014. Marion Barry served on the DC City Council for a total of 16 years, including his early years on the council from 1974-1978.
Dr. Maya Angelou best described Marion Barry’s road with a comment that is carved into his tombstone. “Marion changed America with his unmitigated gall to stand up in the ashes of where he had fallen and came back to win.” That is an extremely elegant way of saying, “We fall down but we get up.”
Marion Barry will rise again, metaphorically speaking. A eight-foot bronze statue of the “Mayor for Life” will be dedicated on Saturday, March 3, 2018, in the courtyard outside the John A. Wilson Building in Washington, D.C. He will be standing, as he always has, for the “least and the left out”, words he often used when describing at least part of his motivation for participating in polities.
While Marion Barry is responsible for transforming Washington, DC from a sleepy, Southern, semi-segregated town to a place some now describe as the “#1 City in the World to live, work, and visit”. Not only did he provide significant incentives to entrepreneurs to invest in and develop areas of the district that had been ignored, but he also insisted that developers share contracting opportunities with those minority entrepreneurs who had been sidelined from participating in government contracting. In his first term as Mayor he created the Minority Business Opportunity Commission (MBOC), and developed a law that required 25 percent certified minority participation in District government contracts. Through the MBOC and other efforts to include Black entrepreneurs, contractors, and supplies in the business (including the bond business) of Washington, DC, Barry both expanded the Black middle class and created dozens of Black millionaires. Indeed, billionaire Bob Johnson got his start when Barry not only granted him the contract for wiring District Cable, but also selling him the land for the BET building for just one dollar!
Barry inspired other mayors in his passion for minority economic development, including Detroit’s Mayor Coleman Young, Chicago’s Mayor Harold Washington, and the mayors of Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Atlanta and San Francisco. Atlanta’s Mayor Maynard Jackson will be remembered for his admonition to majority businesses – “subcontract or no contract”. Marion Barry was equally firm that minority entrepreneurs should be given a “leg up” in the contracting process.
An entire generation of young Washingtonians benefitted from Mayor Barry’s Summer Youth Leadership Institute. Barry said that any young person who wanted a summer job in the District could have one, and more than 100,000 were hired from every part of the city, from every socioeconomic background. Prince George’s County Executive, Rushern Baker, got his first job from Barry’s program, which now continues as the Mayor Marion S. Barry, Jr. Summer Youth Employment Program.
One column is not enough to discuss the background and many contributions of Marion Barry, but one cannot consider his life without mentioning his civil rights leadership as the first Chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), his work in rural Mississippi to register Black people to vote, and his leadership in the Free DC movement. And, it is important to mention a little-known fact about Marion Barry – he completed the coursework for a doctorate in chemistry at the University of Tennessee, dropping out to move to DC to lead the SNCC office here. Barry was a civil rights leader, and champion for seniors, women, the GBLTQ community, and others.
Washington, DC has built a bronze commemorative statue of Mayor for Life Marion Barry, but it is really a statue for all of us, especially since African Americans are so underrepresented in the nation’s statuary. It is a tribute to an amazing man whose life of service transformed a city and uplifted a people. In his autobiography, Barry says, “Most people don’t know me … They don’t know about all of the fighting I’ve done to manage a government that was progressive and more oriented to uplift the people rather than suppress them. That’s what I want my legacy to be. I was a freedom fighter and a fighter for the economic livelihood of not only Black people but all people.”
When I was privileged to attend a preview showing of the Barry statue, I was amazed at how like Marion it was. His hand is raised, waving at people. You can almost see him swagger. All I could say was, “that’s him”, meaning not just the person, but also everything he stood for – struggles, challenges, and opportunities. Young folks and old, regardless of race, can look at the Barry statue and be inspired.
Julianne Malveaux is an author and economist. Her latest book “Are We Better Off? Race, Obama and Public Policy” is available via www.amazon.com for booking, wholesale inquiries or for more info visit www.juliannemalveaux.com