Death of Marion Barry Leaves a Hole In the Heart of D.C.

By John Lavitt 11/24/14

Marion Barry was both a beloved and maddening figure whose accomplishments will be forever overshadowed by his faults.

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In the 40 years of self-rule by the District of Columbia, no politician ever shone so brightly or burned so dangerously as Marion Barry.

With his death early Sunday morning on November 23 at the age of 78, Washington D.C. lost one of the most divisive and maddening, yet beloved figures in the history of the city. Beyond the great accomplishments and profound failures of his four terms as mayor, Barry always will be remembered for a single ugly night in 1990.

On Jan. 18, 1990, Mayor Barry was arrested in a Washington hotel room while smoking crack cocaine with an alleged prostitute. The moment will never be forgotten as the FBI caught it on grainy video. When FBI agents burst into the room, Marion Barry cursed the woman, claiming over and over again that she had set him up.

Widely distributed to the media, the video made Barry infamous worldwide. Although the public had known of his womanizing for years, the pointed visuals of a major political figure smoking crack cocaine took the country by storm. In the early years of the crack epidemic, the drug had truly been demonized in the American consciousness.

Convicted of misdemeanor cocaine possession, Marion Barry was sentenced to six months in prison. The self-proclaimed “Mayor for Life” was in his third term and soon became the face of a sinking city in need of a life preserver. Washington DC’s drug-fueled decline seemed to mirror Barry’s battles with his own personal demons. His fall from grace was hard for the African-American community on the East Coast, particularly the older generation who believed deeply in the bright promise and militant idealism of his youth.

In recent years, Marion Barry had various health problems, including undergoing a kidney transplant in 2009 and surviving prostate cancer. The subject of an HBO documentary in 2009 entitled The Nine Lives Of Marion Barry, his death comes just months after the publication of his autobiography, Mayor for Life: The Incredible Story of Marion Barry Jr.

President Barack Obama paid tribute to the former mayor. "Marion was born a sharecropper's son, came of age during the Civil Rights movement and became a fixture in D.C. politics for decades," President Obama said. "As a leader with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Marion helped advance the cause of civil rights for all. During his decades in elected office in D.C., he put in place historic programs to lift working people out of poverty, expand opportunity and begin to make real the promise of home rule."

Indeed, as a 1960s militant, Marion Barry entered Washington politics spouting a fiery brand of activism. In 1977, Barry was wounded by a shotgun blast in the Hanafi Muslim takeover of D.C.’s city hall, and the shooting strengthened him politically. In 1978, he defeated incumbent Mayor Walter Washington in the Democratic primary and went on to win the general election in a landslide.
In 1994, after his prison term, Marion Barry ran for mayor for a fourth time and actually won. The electorate was harshly divided along racial lines. In response to groans and moans, Barry told those who had not supported his candidacy to “get over it.” In 1995, with the District of Columbia near bankruptcy after years of corruption, Congress stripped him of most of his power. Left with authority over little more than the city’s parks and libraries, Marion Barry chose to finally let go of the reins of Washington DC’s highest local office.

Marion Barry helped change the flavor of American politics for both better and for worse. While rubbing almost all conservatives and many liberals the wrong way, he inspired the downtrodden and the politically ignored with his unbelievable comeback. As poet Maya Angelou said in 1999, “Marion Barry changed America with his unmitigated gall to stand up in the ashes of where he had fallen and come back to win.”

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Growing up in Manhattan as a stutterer, John Lavitt discovered that writing was the best way to express himself when the words would not come. After graduating with honors from Brown University, he lived on the Greek island of Patmos, studying with his mentor, the late American poet Robert Lax. As a writer, John’s published work includes three articles in Chicken Soup For The Soul volumes and poems in multiple poetry journals and compilations. Active in recovery, John has been the Treatment Professional News Editor for The Fix. Since 2015, he has published over 500 articles on the addiction and recovery news website. Today, he lives in Los Angeles, trying his best to be happy and creative. Find John on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.