Marion Barry: Last of the Black Emperors, by Kimberley Wilson

On May 21, 1998, Marion Barry announced to the world that he would not be a candidate for a fifth term as mayor of Washington, D.C. I hardly know whether to laugh or cry. Marion and the city of Washington have been locked in a long and sometimes torturous embrace for more than 16 years. In his heyday, he cast a long, dark shadow over this town.

The first thing a visitor to the District of Columbia sees is Marion Barry. His name is everywhere you look. It’s on the city’s welcome signs, the Reeves Municipal Center and on every public housing project in town. I was a young child when Barry first rode out of Mississippi and into prominence with a flashy position on the city’s school board. As I grew, Barry’s star rose higher and higher. Over the years, however, the antics my parents and I once watched with amusement soon turned to distaste.

When the stories of Barry’s drinking and womanizing began drifting around D.C., a few people began questioning whether he was was really right for Washington. Unfortunately, at the time, they were scattered voices in the wilderness. Whenever a new scandal arose, Barry simply played the race card. His core constituency — the poor, the elderly, most of the black churches and the government — believed him when he said that whites would re-take control of the city if he was not mayor. Despite a sophisticated veneer, Washington, D.C. is, at heart, a mid-sized southern town. Bitter memories of segregation and black victimization are still very strong here. By using whites as bogeymen and government programs as a sweetener, Barry kept the majority of the voters on his side.

Corruption seemed to swirl around the mayor and his inner circle. Government officials like Vice Mayor Ivanhoe Donaldson and Barry’s ex-wife Mary Treadwell (a neighborhood commissioner) found themselves headed for jail. Yet none of the dirt ever seemed to touch Marion Barry. As Jonetta Rose-Barras’s political biography of the mayor The Last of the Black Emperors points out, fate handed Marion Barry an incredible gift. Anyone who dared point out that the emperor had no clothes was accused of either being an Uncle Tom or a racist. That was enough to silence all but the bravest critics.

In the meantime, the city was suffering. The D.C. schools, which had once been so impressive, decayed to the point where everyone who can afford to do so now sends their children to private schools. The police force, once one of the best in the nation, is now a demoralized, chaos-ridden mess. Until the forced appointment of a financial control board and a city manager, Washington was hemorrhaging money. The city’s bonds were downgraded to near junk status, and our nation’s capitol found itself near tetering on the verge of bankruptcy. Neighborhoods like Shaw and Anacostia, which had been promised so much by Barry, were left to languish. Some of the streets look as if the 1968 riots occurred only yesterday. The mayor ignored all this while the city council seemed to be in a trance.

Then, after a series of embarrassing public appearances where the red-eyed, profusely-sweating mayor seemed downright incoherent, the drug rumors started. By the time the FBI arrested him for smoking crack cocaine in a downtown D.C. hotel room, many people were already privately convinced he was using some kind of illegal substance. Any other politician would have been finished.

Marion Barry is not just any politician. He once joked that he was king in D.C. After serving his prison sentence, Barry rode back into town and was lovingly embraced once again by the voters. After four disappointing years of the ineffectual Sharon Pratt Kelly as mayor, the people wanted Barry back. He spoke of salvation, and wore kente clothing and expensive Afrocentric suits.

Barry promised things would be just the way they used to be, but the times had turned against him. All over the city, thoughtful Washingtonians quickly began to voice their discontent. Even some of his most loyal supporters whispered that it was time for Marion to let go. And so he has. Like Coleman Young, Harold Washington and Carl Stokes, Marion Barry has achieved the status of a legend.

It has been said in the press that Marion Barry is going out on top, the undisputed champ. I agree, but the problem is, every champ has to have a chump. For far too long the District of Columbia played that part.

(Kimberley Wilson is a writer and a member of the African-American leadership network Project 21.)

Note: New Visions Commentaries reflect the views of their author, and not necessarily those of Project 21.

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