Marion Barry

Joanna Chait

Marion Barry arrived in Washington in 1965. He was young and notably charismatic. He had already accomplished so much for the Civil Rights Movement. Barry represented the future, one in which African-Americans could have adequate representation in politics. Despite his death on November 23, 2014, Marion Barry is still known as “Mayor for Life” to many Washingtonians. 

Marion Barry has one of the most controversial legacies in all of Washington politics. He was both a champion of racial justice and  the subject of numerous scandals. 

Marion Barry Jr. was born on March 6, 1936 into a family of sharecroppers. The world that he knew was plagued by Jim Crow laws, he dedicated his life’s work to changing that. 

Barry began his long career in civil rights as the president of the NAACP student chapter at LeMoyne College. He was also the chairman of Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and later became the director. Barry was arrested for participating and  organizing the first Nashville lunch counter sit-ins. He was also a leader in many peaceful protests and boycotting the bus system. 

He became chairman of the school board on the DC Council in 1971, which was Barry’s first election in DC politics, but certainly not the last. Barry won the 1974 and 1976 elections for a seat at DC Council at-large representing Ward 8 and in 1978 Barry ran for mayor and won against Walter Washington. 

He had an integral role in re-organizing the city’s government and decreasing the budget deficit. Barry also enacted the summer jobs program, an initiative still used by Wilson students today. However, during his term, both crime and unemployment rates rose. Corruption and a budget crisis became dominant themes for the rest of his career, and by his third term as mayor. Barry was deep into his own battle with substance addiction.

On January 18, 1990 Barry was arrested by the FBI at a hotel for use and possession of crack cocaine. In March, 2006 Barry was sentenced to three years in prison for federal and local tax evasion.