The news hits you like a ton of bricks, if you’ve ever lived in the District of Columbia: Marion Barry passed away this morning at United Medical Center. Barry was a four-term mayor of the District of Columbia, and a four-time council member for Ward 8, with a career in DC politics spanning 35 years.
The contentious council member and former mayor was often a polarizing figure, censured for his actions with his constituent service fund, frequently in trouble with the IRS for failing to pay his taxes and with the city for failing to pay his parking tickets, he is best known for his six-month stint in prison related to a drug charge after a videotaped sting operation in the Vista Hotel on M Street (now a Westin Hotel).
Beyond those charges, and those misdeeds, it is impossible to ignore Barry’s humanitarian streak. His focus on jobs programs for youth brought the Summer Youth Employment Program to fruition during his first term – something many residents of the District say was their very first job. It is also impossible to ignore Barry’s time in the civil rights movement as a co-founder of Pride, Inc, which provided relief for those whose houses were destroyed in the 1968 riots, as well as job training and food for the poor.
It is sometimes impossible for me to resolve the Marion Barry of the civil rights movement and his focus on his constituents in Ward 8, with the Marion Barry of the Vista Hotel, the tax scofflaw, and council misconduct. The extremes for which Barry is known make him out to be larger than life, with impossible conflicts of character. No man better represented the constant fight between the better angels of our nature and our human flaws than did Marion Barry. He was a complicated figure who did much for many of the least of us, but couldn’t keep himself out of trouble.
If while he was alive, Barry’s presence was a target for criticism from the rest of America – some would say the image of Senator Marion Barry was the single greatest argument against statehood for the District – in his passing, he gives one last gift, freeing the city from that association.
I visited the Wilson Building recently, to see some friends at Councilmember McDuffie’s office, and up on the fifth floor, just past the council chambers, is a set of standees made for the 40th anniversary of the Home Rule Act. There were a number of pictures I’d never seen before from the early days of the city’s new, more free period. In so many of them are a young and vibrant Marion Barry in his shirt-sleeves working on the city. I think I would’ve liked Barry better if that was the one I knew first, instead of the one that made the city into a series of jokes. Thankfully, those jokes are over now. I think that is one last gift he can give us all.
Rest in peace, Mr. Mayor.