As February ticks on, we hear a great deal about African-American leaders who incited change in this country. I think it is important to also appreciate those who may have made many mistakes in their life, but still caused a change that shook this country and laid the groundwork for black presidents and greater black representation in America. One does not have to be perfect or a saint to have moved the chains in history. One of these men who may have been problematic, but certainly revolutionized our politics was Marion Barry.
Marion Barry passed away in November at 78 years old. The response was to automatically declare him the crack mayor. That is very disrespectful to the many things he accomplished in his lifetime. Marion Barry was a huge figure in the politics of Washington, DC and in the Civil Rights Movement.
Many people know Barry particularly as the mayor of DC, however, he was making a difference way before then. Born in Mississippi, Marion moved to Tennessee as a young boy following the death of his father. He was 1 of 10 children. He first took a stand as a young paper boy. He won a competition to go to New Orleans, but couldn’t because of segregation laws. He refused to resume his route until he and the other black paper boys were given a trip. He resumed his route only after they were given a trip to St. Louis, which was not segregated.
He attended LeMoyne-Owen College, where he was president of the NAACP chapter. This is where he picked up the middle name Shepilov, after a soviet politician and propaganda department head. He was almost expelled for speaking against a college trustee, who he said disrespected African-Americans.
After graduating from LeMoyne, he earned a Master’s degree in organic chemistry from Fisk University. He was arrested numerous times for participating in sit-ins and other protests in Nashville. After graduation he moved even deeper into the Civil Rights Movement helping to fight bus segregation.
He was the first chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, better known as SNCC. He organized in McComb, Mississippi, where he stayed with locals to have a better understanding of living conditions. He stayed in school to avoid being drafted into the military. He traveled around with SNCC trying to get people to vote and promote the Freedom Democratic Party. He then moved to DC to manage the SNCC chapter there. There he served as the leader of the Free DC Movement.
He quit SNCC in 1967 and co-founded Pride Inc, which was a program that provided job training for unemployed black men. He then worked on the DC Board of Education and served on the first Washington, DC Council as the chair of finance and revenue.
Marion was shot in 1977 during a hostage situation. He was shot very close to his heart. After recovering he ran for mayor for the first time and won convincingly becoming only the 2nd mayor of Washington, DC. As mayor he worked to incorporate more African-Americans in the politics of the city and tried very hard to ensure that black companies were able to get contracts with the city. He served as mayor from 1979 to 1991. At that point he hit his infamous legal troubles.
After serving his sentence, however, he returned to the DC council and then was re-elected mayor in 1994. He remained mayor until 1999. He was re-elected to the DC council in 2002 and remained there until his death.
He was a beloved figure in the DC black community. He only lost the electoral vote in 1 election over all of the times he ran for office. People will try to focus on the negative, but Marion Barry did a lot of good in his life. He was a very active figure in the Civil Rights movement and very active in desegregating the DC bus system. He also did a great deal for the African-American community at large. Rest in peace Marion Barry and thank you for your service.