Correction appended, Nov. 26, 2014
The twenty-third of November forever marks the death of a legend.
Mayor for Life, Marion Barry was a prodigious politician, a once in a lifetime talent, and a man of the community who was eternally beloved by the people he served. It was here, the District of Columbia, where Marion decided to make his home, it is where his people are, it’s where he fought, and it is in this great city on a hill where his legacy will most fervently live on.
The Washington Post once aptly wrote that “to know the District of Columbia is to know Marion Barry.” Mayor Barry’s narrative: his triumphs, his achievements, his setbacks, and his phoenix-like political career, defines a transformative era in Washington, one where the community’s hopes and dreams once deferred, became fulfilled.
The District’s annals are ubiquitously wrought with the struggles of African Americans seeking the dignity of self-determination. Blacks whose ancestors were brought here as slaves to build the nation’s capital where democracy was carried out, but for whom participation was excluded and fiercely restricted by powerful whites.
Marion changed that. His perspective was that anyone regardless of background could bring about change for the betterment of every citizen in the District of Columbia.
In 1979 Marion was the right mayor at the right time, expressing compassion for the poor and the voiceless. He entered office with the clear intent to give representation to populations in need of a champion to help them benefit from a District landscape on the rise against the backdrop of social ills that beset many American urban centers during the 1980s. He breathed life into the community. Because of his advocacy, hope replaced nihilism, promise replaced despair, and bridges to the middle class replaced poverty for many. Those who won’t remember all the details of Mayor Barry’s achievements will always remember how he made them feel.
His legacy teaches us a lesson in self-belief. It is nearly impossible to predict how one man, born of a sharecropper’s son in segregated Mississippi, became Mayor of the nation’s capital, helped create the black middle class, and became the hero of hundreds of thousands of residents. His self-belief was partly born of his natural intuition for dealing with people, but also a consequence of clarity in his life’s mission — serving people. Marion was always drawn to helping the most vulnerable. It was providence that Marion was the President of his college NAACP, the first President of the SNCC, a leader in PRIDE Inc., a workforce development program that employed District residents, school board member, and ultimately Mayor of the District Columbia.
Many will say his death marks the end of an era, many will say he represents a time long gone, many who know nothing of the man will attempt to impugn is legacy. And to them I say: Have you ever spoken to the individuals whose lives he touched as I did? Did you ever witness him fiercely fighting for the most vulnerable members of society, as I did? And do you know the cheer that he brought to his friends as he brought to me? If not, then you will never know why we cherished his presence so greatly.
As his passing is mourned, we can be comforted in knowing that his legacy and love for the District will continue through the renaissance of DC, which he began, and the millions of lives he touched in doing so.
Anita Bonds is an At-Large Councilmember at the District of Columbia. Councilmember Bonds was a political staffer on Marion Barry’s 1974 DC Council campaign; the Deputy Campaign Manager for Barry’s 1978 mayoral campaign; and the Campaign Manager for Marion Barry’s 1982 and 1986 mayoral campaign.
Correction: The original version of this story misstated the purpose of the PRIDE Inc. program.
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