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March 5, 2010

The Fall of Marion Barry

Roy Meachum

On Wednesday The Washington Post published: “A defiant D.C. Council Member Marion Barry told a packed Baptist church in Southeast Washington on Tuesday night that despite the decision of the City Council to censure him and strip him of his committee chairmanship, he doesn’t plan to fade away…,’’ the former mayor told several hundred supporters. “They may take my committee chair. They can’t take my dignity.”


As someone present for his political birth, I must comment: No, he did that to himself.


It was almost exactly 42 years ago when the press first met Marion Barry, together with civil rights activist Rufus “Catfish” Mayfield and Chuck Stone, the right-hand for Harlem Congressman Adam Clayton Powell. Mr. Barry headed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a civil rights organization. The trio staged a protest that the District of Columbia was not ruled by the ballot box, but by the Congress.


Then-Mayor Walter Washington was African American; he and his colleagues were appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson and approved by the U.S. Senate. Mr. Barry and his associates did not think that was right, in a heavily weighted black city, hence the protest. They staged a People Vote on a spring Saturday, in 1968.


Since traveling to Rome with Archbishop Patrick O’Boyle to get his cardinal’s red hat, I worked weekends for then-WTOP-TV, Channel 9. The crew agreed the U Street protest would be the day’s hottest story. I had never heard Marion Barry’s name before. That day he sported a splendid Dashiki and an oversized Afro cut that grew out of his head like a primal halo.


When we first arrived, the future mayor was eager to be interviewed on camera, talking enthusiastically about the event. Chuck Stone and I knew each other; passing by we nodded. I never saw “Catfish” that day.


Leaving his camera behind, the senior crew member slipped among the small crowd; he came back to report their lack of turnout forced the organizers to stuff their ballot boxes. When he, the soundman and I sought for someone to explain and fess up to the day’s failure, Dashiki-clad Barry could not be found; the same for Mr. Mayfield.


Chuck Stone made me a friend for life when he faced the camera and the microphone and admitted things had not gone as the three planned and hoped. (Chuck and I bumped into each other in Moscow’s airport a few years ago; he now teaches black studies at the University of North Carolina.)


The next time I went to Rome it was for The Washington Evening Star and Metromedia – the network and stations Fox bought to launch its television-cable network. In my first days back I was invited to some Georgetown soiree for the upward-mobile set, and there was a reborn Marion Barry, gliding around the parlor dressed in an Italian silk suit; blowing air kisses and holding ladies’ hands by way of greeting. We never spoke.


Later I realized the future mayor was at the party, and others, looking for funds for his political career. By then, the District was awarded the vote and elected Mayor Washington and his colleagues; the electorate did not cotton to the man who was favored by the white establishment.


The next election Barry danced in, widely beating the incumbent and Walter Faunteroy, a former deputy to Martin Luther King, Jr. The mayoral contest was a case of how black can you be, and the other two lost.


For the next 20 years, Marion Barry was the political monarch of Washington, interrupted a single term after he was busted by the F.B.I. on cocaine charges; his woman at the time told the feds what was going on. He governed with both style and éclat, playing always to the masses without mussing the business crowd; no easy accomplishment.


On our infrequent contacts, he struck me as arrogant and all-knowing and above all supremely self-confident. He had a right to be self-satisfied: he walked the walk and furthermore talked the talk that Washington voters wanted to hear. When he decided later to run for the District’s poorest ward, he knew he was guaranteed to win and hold on, no matter what his sins.


What he had not counted on was the entire council turning on him, after a report from influential attorney Robert Bennett pointed out his gross misuse of power. They did. And for lagniappe, as we say in New Orleans, they passed along to the U.S. Attorney the allegations about his dipping into federal funds. He sneaked a contract for an off-again, on-again girlfriend who claimed she was only paying him back for loans, nothing to do with getting the contract. We’ll see.


I doubt that Marion Barry has a Dashiki in his wardrobe closet; his balding head could not grow an Afro if his life depended on it; his weight has multiplied since that spring when I reported on his People Vote agitation. His vaunted charisma and aggressive style was reflected in the statements that led this column.


At the same time, I found myself remembering a Latin phrase, translated: He hath put down the mighty from their seats and exalted those of low degree.


He’s always come back before, in the over 40 years I’ve tracked his public record; but this time may be different for Marion Barry. He lived large and robustly enjoyed the ride. I cannot weep for him.


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