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April 10, 2012

Marion Barry’s Latest

Roy Meachum

Marion Barry popped up in the news last week? Which leads to the inevitable question: When has he not been in public view? At least, not since 1965, when as a TV9 reporter I covered the People’s Election to protest the District of Columbia’s lack of voting rights.


That Saturday Marion Barry kept company with Chuck Stone from U.S. Rep. Adam Clayton Powell’s office, noted for his work on Civil Rights, tagging along was Rufus Catfish Mayfield, always present and available for cameras in that turbulent era. But not that Saturday. The number of protestors was embarrassingly small. Catfish joined his buddy in disappearing. Chuck was left alone to face the cameras and journalists’ inquiries on the asphalt off Washington’s U Street, N.W.


Rome intervened. I travelled to Vatican City for Metromedia TV and radio the next year, following up the revolution ignited by Pope Paul VI’s publication Humanae Vitae (Of Human Life), popularly regarded as the Birth Control Encyclical. When I returned to this country, I was invited to a “proper” Georgetown cocktail party, where I encountered Marion Barry again.


In an Italian double-breasted silk suit, instead of the dashiki he’d worn that Saturday, his hair had been transformed from a bushy “afro” in a stylish barbershop that made Marion Barry seem respectable; his finger nails had been tended to by a manicurist, presumably where he achieved the new “do.” He ignored me and frankly I had no interest in confronting him. At that time, I enjoyed a warm relationship with appointed-mayor Walter Washington, his wife and several of the African Americans who figured important in those Lyndon Johnson and early Richard Nixon years.


Egypt came next. To produce a documentary in the wake of the King Tut exhibition’s roaring popularity, I lived in Cairo’s Giza and Zamalek hotels for some months. When I returned, the District building was turned upside down, Capitol City residents were congressionally allowed to vote, although in a limited way that persists now. Mayor Washington served with a popular majority. Voters placed Marion Barry on the D.C. city council and he went on to serve as mayor five times, the last two terms interrupted by a spin in prison.


The FBI surveillance tape captured him taking “dope” with a sometime model turned federal informant; the arrest added to his reputation in what was then called Chocolate City. He continues being elected and re-elected. The Mississippi-born politician put into colorful words what is on the minds of the African-American community in the National Capitol area; he still reflects their individual bigotry and prejudices – first of all against “whitey.” They still resist the invasions of Latinos, blacks and others: Indian and Caucasian; they compete for jobs. Their population explosion has put them above resentment from ex-slaves.


Marion Barry’s boo-boo, for which he duly apologized, was slamming Asians, asking they be kicked out of Ward 8 that he represents on the council. He called for their businesses to be taken over by his African American constituents.


Few of the Vietnamese, Taiwanese and Chinese families live close to their stores and restaurants; they drive in and out every day, from their suburban residences. I read his apologetic words and don’t believe them. Beginning in that 1965’s U Street protest, I’ve heard them before.


Like Huey Long in my native Louisiana, incidentally next to his Mississippi birth state, Marion Barry will never be defeated at the ballot box. The Kingfish was taken by an assassin’s bullet while serving in the U.S. Senate; his African American counterpart will certainly die in bed.


Considering his life and multitudinous ladies, the outstanding question is: Whose bed?


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