The civil rights activist had a storied and controversial four-decade career in District politics
Divisive and flamboyant, maddening and beloved, former Washington, D.C., mayor Marion Barry outshone every politician in the 40-year history of District of Columbia self-rule.
But for many, the legacy of the so-called “mayor for life,” who died Sunday at 78, was not defined by the accomplishments and failures of his four terms in office and long service on the D.C. Council.
Instead, Barry will be remembered for a single night in a downtown Washington hotel room and the grainy video that showed him lighting a crack pipe in the company of a much-younger woman. When FBI agents burst in, he referred to her with an expletive. She “set me up,” Barry said.
Barry’s family said in statement that he died shortly after midnight at the United Medical Center, after having been released from Howard University Hospital on Saturday. No cause of death was given, but his spokeswoman LaToya Foster said he collapsed outside his home.
At a 4 a.m. press conference, the city’s mayor-elect Muriel Bowser called Barry an “inspiration to so many people and a fighter for people.”
“Mr. Barry, I can say this, lived up until the minute the way he wanted to live,” said Bowser, who had served with Barry on the D.C. Council.
Barry first was elected mayor in 1978. With his good looks, charisma and background in the civil rights movement, he was embraced the dynamic leader the city’s young government needed. The Washington Post endorsed him in each of his first three mayoral runs, and he was a council member at the time of his death.
Barry served a six-month term in federal prison for his drug involvement, but it did not tarnish his political career. To many district residents, particularly lower-income blacks, he was still a hero, someone unfairly persecuted for personal failures and he continued to bounce back in city politics.
“Marion Barry changed America with his unmitigated gall to stand up in the ashes of where he had fallen and come back to win,” poet Maya Angelou said in 1999.
Barry was born March 6, 1936, in the small Mississippi delta town of Itta Bena, and was raised in Memphis, Tenn., after the death of his father, a sharecropper.
He earned a bachelor’s degree from LeMoyne-Owen College in Memphis, and a master’s degree in chemistry from Nashville’s Fisk University, leaving short of earning a doctorate to work on the civil rights movement. He later becoming the first national chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, which sent young people into the South to register black voters and became known as one of the most militant civil rights groups of that era.
He suffered numerous health problems over the years. In addition to kidney failure, he survived prostate cancer, undergoing surgery in 1995 and a follow-up procedure in 2000. In early 2014, he spent several weeks in hospitals and a rehabilitation center battling infections and related complications.
“Marion was not just a colleague but also was a friend with whom I shared many fond moments about governing the city,” said D.C.’s current Mayor Vincent C. Gray. “He loved the District of Columbia and so many Washingtonians loved him.”
Barry was married four times and is survived by his estranged wife, Cora, and one son, Marion Christopher Barry.