Marion Barry: the People’s Mayor

Julianne Malveaux

By Julianne Malveaux
NNPA Columnist

Washington, D.C. just lost an icon. In the early morning hours of November 23, D.C.’s Mayor for Life succumbed to some of the health challenges that have plagued him for several years.  Even in ill health he was, as he had been all his life, an icon to the people, especially those in the poorest part of the city. He distributed turkeys to the poor every year. More importantly, he pushed legislation that would not punish felons when they applied for jobs.

Barry had a knack for championing for the least and the left out, the youth and the seniors, the homeless and the hungry. There are few politicians who are as consistent in their focus as Marion Barry.

As mayor, Barry was the architect of D.C.’s economic development, making city contracts available to minority businesses – that just needed a chance so they could thrive.  Of course, he is rarely acknowledged for his role in the city’s economic development, although it has been one of his key accomplishments. Barry’s brilliance is also frequently unacknowledged. He was a dissertation away from a doctorate in chemistry when he joined the Civil Rights Movement.  That accomplishment was exceptional given Barry’s impoverished background. His parents picked cotton for a living and few expected him to rise to the heights that he did.

Marion Barry mentored countless young men, embracing the concept “each one teach one.”  Their association with him transformed dozens of young men. His summer youth program hired any youngster who needed a job – in the private sector or in the public sector.  Even today, people credit Barry with helping them secure their job.

Many will focus on Barry’s weaknesses instead of his strengths. Some have reported on his transition with mean headlines. Their reporting ignores the fact that the only person Marion Barry really hurt was himself. They ignore the fact that in the course of his life, Marion did more good than bad.  TMZ, how dare you besmirch a good and faithful man, an unwavering warrior for African American people?

One of the tallest trees in the forest has fallen and the remaining trees are shaken and disturbed, even as the earth shifts and the environment has been altered.

It’s an awkward transition to move from Marion Barry to Ferguson, but the violent response to the fact that Darren Wilson would not be indicted reminds me of the Langston Hughes poem:

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?

Fester like a sore – and then run?

Maybe it just sags like a heavy load

Or does it explode?

Young people all over the country are justifiably angry at the fact that Darren Wilson was not indicted.  The explosion of violence in Ferguson, however, is unacceptable.  Black businesses were destroyed along with others, because people were indiscriminately destructive.

At the same time, protesters were set up. Choosing to announce that Wilson would not be indicted until 8 o’clock in the evening was a tactic. It is also as if Robert McCulloch set protesters up. Why not release the results the next morning?  Emotions had reached a peak by 8 p.m.  Why throw fuel on an angry fire?

It is also interesting that many are convinced that McCulloch did not aggressively push to indict Wilson because he didn’t want to.  One witness said that he turned her words around during his examination of her. That suggests that he treated his own witnesses as hostile. Meanwhile, his apparent tepid examination advantaged him.  Lawyers like to say that prosecutors can indict “a ham sandwich.”  Not McCulloch.

What would Marion Barry say?  Give them some jobs; make them put some skin in the game?  Send them to school and engage them in the system.  Michael was about to go to school when he was brutally shot by Darren Wilson.

Even if Michael Brown had stolen some cigars, he didn’t have to die because of it. At least eight bullets riddled his body; about a dozen were fired.  Darren Wilson says he was doing his job, and the grand jury believed him.  However, there is a way to hit Ferguson without resorting to violence. Why not organize a boycott of Ferguson and its surrounding areas by refusing to buy there? Why not boycott just one store until changes were made. Its CEO would be calling the police chief, the mayor, or perhaps the governor to make needed changes in “law enforcement.”

We need more people like Marion Barry to look out for the interests of our young people.  Where is the man or woman with Marion’s passion for the least and the left out?  Or, have we consigned our youth and young adults to the periphery, leaving them to act out as they so tragically did in Ferguson?

Julianne Malveaux is an author and economist based in Washington, DC