A controversial and tireless advocate for the nation’s capital who created jobs for generations of black families, Marion Barry was the ultimate District of Columbia politician, though his arrest for drug use in the midst of a crack cocaine epidemic often overshadows his accomplishments.
The former four-term mayor will long be remembered for one night in 1990 when he was caught on video lighting a crack pipe in an FBI sting operation. In an instant, the then-mayor of the capital city was exposed as a drug user himself.
Barry died Sunday at 78. His family said Barry died 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.
Barry first made a name for himself in the South as a leader in the civil rights movement and brought his fierce advocacy to D.C. to support the fight for local residents to be freed from the rule of Congress to manage their own city affairs. That legacy was remembered Sunday at the White House upon news of Barry’s death.
“Marion was born a sharecropper’s son, came of age during the Civil Rights movement, and became a fixture in D.C. politics for decades,” President Barack Obama said. “As a leader with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Marion helped advanced the cause of civil rights for all. During his decades in elected office in D.C., he put in place historic programs to lift working people out of poverty, expand opportunity and begin to make real the promise of home rule.”
Washington’s new mayor-elect Muriel Bowser called Barry an “inspiration to so many people and a fighter for people.”
“He has left a strong legacy for so many young people to follow,” Bowser said. “He has left lessons about how he helped people in this city that will carry on for years and years to come.”
Barry’s name also became synonymous with corruption for many observers. His accomplishments are often forgotten in light of his arrest for drug abuse when he was caught in a Washington hotel room with a much younger woman.
“Bitch set me up,” Barry famously cursed when FBI agents burst in, referring to the woman who helped the FBI set up the sting.
Federal authorities had been investigating him for years for his alleged ties to drug suspects, and while he denied using drugs, his late-night partying was taking a toll on his job performance.
The arrest and subsequent conviction — a jury deadlocked on most counts, convicting him of a single count of drug possession — was a turning point for Barry.
He had been elected to his first term as mayor in 1978 with broad support from across the city. With his good looks, charisma and background in civil rights, he was embraced as the dynamic leader the city’s young government needed. The Washington Post endorsed him in his first three mayoral runs.
A six-month term in federal prison was hardly the end of Barry’s political career. But it forever changed how it was perceived. To some, he was a pariah and an embarrassment. But to many residents, particularly lower-income blacks, he was still a hero, someone unfairly persecuted for personal failures.
Barry returned to the D.C. Council in 1992, representing the poorest of the city’s eight wards. Two years later, he won his fourth and final term as mayor. His political triumph was short-lived. In 1995, with the city flirting with bankruptcy from years of bloated, unaccountable government, much of it under Barry, Congress stripped him of much of his power and installed a financial control board. He decided against seeking a fifth term.
Barry couldn’t stay away from politics, though. In 2004, he returned to the D.C. Council, again representing Ward 8, where he remained beloved. He was re-elected in 2008 and 2012.
Barry was born March 6, 1936, to Marion and Mattie Barry, in the Mississippi delta and was raised in Memphis, Tennessee, after the death of his father, a sharecropper.
While an undergraduate at LeMoyne College (now LeMoyne-Owen College), Barry picked up the nickname “Shep” in reference to Soviet propagandist Dmitri Shepilov for his ardent support of the civil rights movement. Barry began using Shepilov as his middle name.
Barry completed graduate work in chemistry at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, earning a master’s degree. He left school short of a doctorate to work in the civil rights movement.
Barry’s political rise began in 1960, when he became 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.
Barry’s work with the committee brought him to Washington. He first entered local politics as a member of the school board and then in 1974 as a member of the first elected city council.
He was wounded by a shotgun blast in the Hanafi Muslim takeover of D.C.’s city hall in 1977. The shooting was credited with strengthening him politically. In 1978, Barry defeated incumbent Mayor Walter Washington in the Democratic primary and went on to easily win the general election.
Barry’s early years in office were marked by improvement in many city services and a dramatic expansion of the government payroll, creating a thriving black middle class in the nation’s capital. He established a summer jobs program that gave many young people their first work experience and earned him political capital.
Outside Union Temple Baptist Church on Sunday near Barry’s home, Mallika D. Jefferson, 40, of Washington, said three generations of her family got jobs with Barry’s help.
“He was a man of perseverance,” she said. “He told it like it is. He didn’t care. He wasn’t afraid to let people know that he knew this city” better than anybody.
Many noted Barry helped scores of residents get jobs and fought for the city’s poorest residents.
“He was a great man,” said Pastor Willie Wilson at the church, drawing sustained cheers and applause of parishioners Sunday. “Even at times when the coffers of the city, our budget, were not anywhere near what they are today, he insisted that opportunity be made available.”
The city’s drug-fueled decline in the 1980s and 1990s mirrored Barry’s battles with his personal demons, leading to the infamous hotel room arrest on Jan. 19, 1990. The video of Barry was widely distributed to the media and made him infamous worldwide.
A few months after his arrest, long-time civil rights advocate and educator Roger Wilkins, a past supporter, wrote in The Post: “Marion Barry used the elders and lied to the young. He has manipulated thousands of others with his cynical use of charges of racism to defend his malodorous personal failures.”
Barry suffered numerous health problems over the years. In addition to kidney failure, he survived prostate cancer. In early 2014, he spent several weeks in hospitals battling infections and related complications.
Current Mayor Vincent Gray expressed sadness after learning about Barry’s death.
“Marion was not just a colleague but also was a friend with whom I shared many fond moments about governing the city,” Gray said. “He loved the District of Columbia and so many Washingtonians loved him.”
Gray ordered flags in the city lowered in Barry’s honor and said he would work with Barry’s family and the Council to plan official ceremonies “worthy of a true statesman of the District of Columbia.”
Barry was married four times and is survived by his wife, Cora, and one son, Marion Christopher Barry.
Associated Press reporters Jessica Gresko and Matthew Barakat contributed to this report.