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Marion Barry, former Washington D.C. mayor, reelected after a stint in prison, is now immortalized in bronze on Pennsylvania Avenue—a short hop from the White House. The eight-foot-tall $250,000 statue by artist Steven Weitzman was organized and arranged through the Executive Office of the Mayor, Muriel Bowser, the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, and the Marion Barry Commission.
Reception of the giant replica is as controversial as was the man who inspired the tribute; from those outside The Swamp, he was a crack smoking embarrassment for the nation’s capital city. But those who lived and worked in the city, revere and continue to pay homage for the good works he accomplished on behalf of black Americans.
But does his life and work rank his legacy as one to grace the most powerful city in the world?
Barry was born in Mississippi and came of age during the tumultuous Civil Rights era in Memphis. He arrived in D.C. as a staffer of Student Nonviolent Coordinator Committee (SNCC) where his political obsession and aspirations took hold.
As D.C. was first granted its own form of government representation in 1973, allowing for elected city council positions and mayor, Barry was ushered into office for the first time as a councilman—and stayed until his death in 2014. Well, except for those missing months during his unfortunate incarceration.
After rumors flew in the late 1980s of then-Mayor Barry’s erratic and disturbing public behavior, he was videotaped in an FBI sting operation in 1991(back when the FBI pursued criminals) sucking on a crack pipe in a downtown hotel with a girlfriend. Heck, times sure have changed as the Washington Post covered the arrest of a Democrat:
“D.C. Mayor Marion Barry was arrested on charges of possession of cocaine last night at the downtown Vista International Hotel after a fast-moving undercover investigation by the FBI and D.C. police that began several weeks ago, according to law enforcement officials and sources familiar with the arrest.
Barry’s arrest comes at a time when the mayor has seemed increasingly confident about his political future and aggressive on the issue of the city’s drug war.”
Oh, he was certainly on the front line of the D.C. drug war. And he was convicted of crack possession but skated the other crimes including perjury and served six months in prison. A career ender for any other elected official, but not for Barry. He had more to accomplish in between the arrests for drunk driving, and continual allegations of government corruption.
The Addiction of Politics
You would think a sane person after serving a prison sentence, embarrassing his family and his beloved city, would just go home. But Barry waltzed out of the pokey, turned himself around, and ran for city council (and won) and then was elected Mayor in 1994. He just would not go away—until he died. And that has prompted the outpouring of love for this fatally flawed icon.
At the unveiling party, complete with frat boys and funk music, current D.C. mayor, Muriel Bowser poetically opined, “Sometime after Martin Luther King had a dream, and before President Obama gave us hope, it was Marion Barry that gave opportunity to Washington, D.C.”
Marion Barry is known by locals as Mayor for Life and with a bronze likeness, with a huge smile and outstretched hand (not clutching apparatus for drug use), he is now forever ensconced in his very own Mister Robinson’s neighborhood (the SNL skit featuring Eddie Murphy) in front of the building where he wheeled and dealt on behalf of the people living in the inner city. But does he deserve the landmark of Pennsylvania Avenue?
If you believe his fervent supporters. For instance, current D.C. City Councilman Trayon White, during a local call-in radio program, had this to offer, “He was a living legend. Marion Barry was an integral part of getting D.C. where it is today.” Well, jeez-Louise, if you put it that way, maybe installing Barry in the middle of The Swamp is completely appropriate.
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