Washington's Marion Barry Did It the Hard Way—from Poverty to Militant to Mayor
The year was 1966, and the nation seethed with racial tension. In Washington, D.C. the most militant black leader was a 6’1″ “street dude” named Marion Barry. He wore a dashiki, a goatee and his anger like a badge. In a city that was then 62 percent black, he launched a boycott against local businessmen because they opposed home rule. He dismissed them as “moneylord merchants”; they denounced him as “immoral, un-American and unjust.”
Last month Marion Barry was sworn in as mayor of Washington. During his inaugural parade he strode past burned-out ghettos that were once his turf. District of Columbia police—the enemy back then—eased his way through the streets. Vice-President Walter Mondale called him “one of the most exciting public leaders in the U.S. today.” A neatly mustached Barry, in a vested suit, admitted with a smile, “Now I don’t have to kick a door down or call somebody a name to get something accomplished.”
At 42, the transition of Marion Shepilov Barry Jr. (friends picked the middle name for him during the Sputnik era) was over. The radical had become a realist.
His success represents a dramatic victory for the brand of confrontation politics forged during the Civil Rights ’60s. Black Panther Bobby Seale failed the metamorphosis in his losing race for mayor of Oakland in 1973. There are black mayors in Atlanta, Los Angeles, Detroit and Newark. But these made their way into office by more traditional routes.
Barry won the key race—last September’s all-black Democratic primary—with a coalition of liberal whites relatively new to the city, gays, some old-line Washingtonians and enough middle-class black votes to offset his opponents’ strength in the same neighborhoods.
After that, it was no contest. Barry swamped the Republican candidate 2 to 1 in the general election. At the victory party, the weary but jubilant candidate leaned from the podium and shouted to his supporters, “We ripped them good, didn’t we?”
It had to be a sweet moment.
In 1966 Barry was saying, prophetically, “If we get the people aroused, then we’ll get power.” That kind of call to action frightened the bejesus out of the white establishment—not to mention the conservative, church-going element of the black population. “Man, this dude was so militant he scared me,” recalls Rufus “Catfish” Mayfield, one of the street kids Barry recruited back then and now a nightclub emcee. “Marion would tell me stuff to say. I’d say it and people would go crazy.”
But a closer look at that period makes clear that Barry was never really a bring-down-the-system revolutionary. He simply understood confrontation politics. “It was like a war,” Barry recalls. “You change your tactics depending on where you are on the battlefield. I was definitely on the outer edges of society in terms of some of the programs I was moving. And society has always needed pressure to bring about basic changes.”
Listening to him now, it’s hard to imagine the firebrand of bygone days. Yet Barry still exerts a magnetism over an audience. Face to face he is low-key, gentle-voiced, his speech redolent with the Southern inflections of his boyhood. “I was 12 years younger in those days. I was more idealistic. I had more energy. As mayor I’ve got the power to get things done without having to scream and yell. I think I’ve made the adjustment from protest politics to electoral politics much more rapidly than some of my friends have.”
Almost immediately upon taking office, Barry became aware that his city was far more troubled then he ever imagined. The bureaucracy is inertia-bound; deep-rooted inefficiency is wasting millions. “The government is structured not to work,” Barry says with exasperation. “If I can just get everybody to answer the telephone right, that’s a revolution.”
A revolution of another kind is underway in a city whose 674,000 population is now 75 percent black. Real estate and business interests have moved into once marginal neighborhoods with a determination born of profit, driving up prices and sometimes displacing large numbers of blacks. Barry deplores the trend but has won the support of such people as R. Robert Linowes, a developer who heads the influential Board of Trade and who defends the return of whites to the city. That kind of contradiction has led to some suspicions among black critics that Barry is cozying up to the white establishment.
“Any politician represents the interests that put him in office and keep him in,” says Mary Treadwell, Barry’s ex-wife and co-founder with him of Pride, Inc.—an organization for young street blacks that she still runs. “I don’t dismiss the talk of a white takeover of this town as simply paranoia.”
Barry and his supporters insist that fears about him are preposterous. “Marion is the same now as he was in the ’60s,” says Ivanhoe Donaldson, fellow civil rights activist, campaign manager and now general assistant to the mayor. “His constituency may have broadened, but his philosophical core is anchored in social justice and human rights.”
During the campaign Barry himself took pains to reassure black voters. “Don’t you ever worry about me,” he said. “Don’t ever think that Katharine Graham [then publisher of the Post, which fervently supported him] or anybody else is going to control Marion Barry. I will never forget who made me what I am and who I am. I will never forget where I came from.”
He was born to sharecroppers in Itta Bena, Miss. “We never had shoes that didn’t have holes in them,” he recalls. His father died when he was 4, and his deeply religious mother, Mattie, took Marion and his sister to Memphis. His mother remarried, and the family grew to eight children, living in a four-room house. The oldest, and the only boy, Marion “was a very obedient and quiet child,” says his mother, who still works as a domestic. Marion picked cotton in the fields alongside her. He was a paperboy, a waiter and a carhop. “Most of us had very low horizons.” Many of his childhood friends, he says, are “in jail or dead.”
A good student (and an Eagle scout), Barry drifted into Memphis’ all-black LeMoyne College (“I didn’t even know there was college until the 11th grade”) and chose a chemistry major because he liked science. Against a backdrop of growing activism in the late ’50s, his horizons began to expand. He made headlines when he demanded the resignation of a white LeMoyne trustee who had made racist remarks. A threat to expel Barry was dropped when Roy Wilkins of the NAACP came to his support.
Barry went on to get a master’s in chemistry at Fisk University in Nashville and study for a doctorate at the University of Tennessee. (He had a brief marriage during those years.) But the lure of the civil rights movement, then in full bloom, drew him into the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). He dropped out of school, participated in sit-ins and voting rights actions in Tennessee and Mississippi and got arrested several times. His friends were beaten and killed.
In 1965 he moved to Washington for SNCC and found a city without local voting rights. Its destiny was controlled by Southern congressmen and white businessmen. Barry plunged in. In early 1966 came the business boycott (during which he allegedly strong-armed some store owners for contributions, prompting one congressman to denounce his tactics as “extortionist”). That same year Barry organized a one-day bus boycott against a fare increase and staged neighborhood block parties in violation of rigid police-permit policies.
In summer ’67, in an effort to ease ghetto discontent, the Labor Department put up $2 million to take city kids off the streets and train them for jobs. That was the genesis of Pride, Inc.
“It was Marion who developed the credibility with these hard-core kids,” says Carroll Harvey, a Pride, Inc. founder and now Barry’s assistant administrator for operations. “The night before Pride started they were out committing serious crimes. Within a few days a thousand of them were in uniform, cleaning up streets and alleys in the ghetto. Nobody else in town but Marion could have done it.”
Big and tough-talking, Barry projected a fearsome image. Since then he has been able to transcend that reputation, including repeated charges of inefficiency and possible fraud within the controversial organization.
In 1971 Barry was elected to the city’s school board and served with distinction as its president for two and a half years. In 1974, after Congress mandated an elected city council for Washington, Barry won an at-large seat. Two years later he was reelected by a 73 percent vote. In an ironic twist, Councilman Barry was shot and wounded by Hanafi Muslims during their 1977 siege at city hall. He became a hero of sorts among townspeople.
As his mayoralty campaign strategists tried to put together a winning coalition in the three-way primary race, they found partisans in unlikely places—as among white Georgetown’s conservative social set. One couple, both Republicans, were so taken with Barry they switched parties. “I felt I was talking to someone who was competent and who would listen,” says the husband, a young businessman. “I found him cultured, intelligent and thoughtful. He has a charisma about him.”
The charisma is evident. Women consider Barry “sensual.” He emanates power and confidence. Yet those who know the offstage Barry describe him as shy—a loner. Barry himself admits to having no intimate friends.
“Marion is not an easy person to know,” says Effi Barry, his wife of less than a year (“This whole marriage has been a campaign,” she adds wryly). “He’s a very sensitive person, but life has taught him to hide it. So he has learned to project a hard outer shell. He’s a man who suffers privately.”
Barry met Effi, the 34-year-old former wife of a jazz musician, a few months after his separation from Mary Treadwell in 1976. They live in a handsome townhouse on Capitol Hill. Neither has any children.
No longer the outsider, Barry now has an opportunity to prove he can do better than those he once tongue-lashed. His city has neighborhoods of great poverty and high unemployment. Its autonomy is still ransomed to Congress (which can veto any act of the city council), and its national image is, wrongly, that of a crime capital. A key battle is shaping up over ratification of a constitutional amendment granting the city representation in Congress. This would give D.C. two senators and at least one congressman—and Barry would be in line for one of those jobs.
That amendment could take six years; meanwhile he exudes self-assurance. “I’ve never lost a major battle in my life,” he says, puffing at a filter cigarette. “I’ve lost skirmishes here and there, but where it counts I’ve always won. I intend to maintain that record.”