Activist, former D.C. mayor Marion Barry passes

Marion S. Barry, stalwart civil rights activist cum prominent politician, passed away Nov. 23 at age 78 owing to cardiac arrest.

Barry, of course, was infamously publicized for his 1990 arrest and subsequent incarceration for drug possession. Like many chemically dependent individuals his was a virtually lifelong affliction that marred his professional career and personal life.

Born in Itta Bena, Mississippi, he graduated LeMoyne College where he was president of LeMoyne’s chapter of the NAACP. At Fisk University, he earned an M.S. in organic chemistry while continuing his commitment to civil rights, participating in, among other protests, sit-ins in Nashville, TN.

Marion Barr

After leaving Fisk in 1960, Barry was the first person elected chair of SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) and helped organize Black voter registration in McComb, Mississippi. During his tenure leading SNCC, he led demonstrations against segregation and discrimination and traveled around America to all of the state legislatures in an attempt to make the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party the recognized Democratic party of Mississippi.

In 1965, at the invitation of iconic civil rights leader James Forman, Marion Barry moved to Washington, D.C. to open an area chapter of SNCC and was heavily involved in coordinating street protests as well as a bus boycott. He left SNCC in 1967, succeeded as chair by H. Rap Brown, and with Mary Treadwell founded Pride, Inc., a Department of Labor-funded program to provide unemployed Black men job training.

Following the 1968 Washington, D.C. riots, he organized a Pride Inc. program of free food distribution to impoverished people whose homes had been destroyed in the rioting, convincing the Giant Food supermarket chain to donate goods. He also became a board member of the city’s Economic Development Committee, helping to route federal funds and venture capital to Black-owned businesses struggling to recover from the riots and employing hundreds of at-risk teenagers.

He publicly criticized President Richard Nixon for opposing a holiday for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., stating, “Why should Blacks feel elated when we see men eating on the moon when millions of Blacks and poor Whites don’t have enough money to buy food here on earth?”

Entering politics, Barry was elected to the D.C. Board of Education (1971–1974), then the D.C. Council (1974-1979) before becoming Washington, D.C. Mayor (1979–1991 and 1995-1999). Uncharacteristic of his days as an activist, his mayoral administration was plagued by inefficiency and dysfunction, after which he returned to the D.C. Council (2002–2014).

He is profiled in the television documentary The Nine Lives of Marion Barry.

Dwight Hobbes welcomes reader responses to P.O. Box 50357, Mpls, 55403.