The Redemption of Marion Barry

Author’s note:  This article was first published 20 years ago (October of 1994), during Marion Barry’s triumphant return from drug abuse, prison, and electoral oblivion.  I reprint it now in light of his untimely death.

Marion Barry’s landslide victory in Washington, D.C.’s mayoral primary signals a sea change in black political culture nationwide. Barry’s supporters, most of whom were between 18 and 26, sent an unmistakably clear message to those whites who cling to their whiteness as a shield against the surging Black masses and to the increasingly distant Black middle class: “Cut us in or cut it out!” Coming hard on the heels of the unceremonious ouster of Rev. Ben Chavis as head of the NAACP, for black youth, Barry’s victory assuages some of that stinging bitterness and their perceived betrayal and abandonment by the traditional “black leadership” of the NAACP, et al.

I was living in Washington when Barry’s Vista Hotel fiasco went down. Like most blacks there and everywhere else, his arrest for cocaine use aroused a whole range of emotions, including anger, disbelief, frustration, and suspicions of an over zealous government conspiracy to “get” Marion Barry. But more than anything else, I was stunned by Barry’s blatant hypocrisy. (Just the night before the bust, he had appeared at an anti-drug rally and loudly decried the drug-related murder of a popular D.C. high school athlete). When the then Sharon Pratt Dixon announced her candidacy, I ran to her side, volunteered in her campaign, wrote scathing articles about Barry’s dark side, and heartily celebrated Dixon’s victory and Barry’s political funeral.

But something happened on the way to the next mayoral election — something no one predicted on that fateful night in 1990. Sharon Dixon (now Kelly), an attractive, intelligent, and surely honest lady, turned out to be a quintessential elitist. Almost from Day One of her ill-fated one and only term as D.C. first African American female mayor, classism and colorism seemed to define D.C.’s “new” political order. Kelly lost because she showed hardly any concern for, or relevance to, Washington’s “common” people, while she lavished government largesse upon herself and her carefully chosen cohorts, who, for the most part, looked just like her.

Meanwhile, the city began its catharsis through the trial and imprisonment of Barry. In the process, Barry cleaned himself up, got elected to the city council, divorced and remarried (a dark hued woman this time), donned African garb (one more time), and even adopted an African name — all in the name of redemption.

Most observers discounted the transformation of Marion Barry as just another of his many con games. After all, hadn’t the man been caught red handed by the FBI and with the whole world watching? He was, therefore, declared officially and unofficially, morally, spiritually and politically dead.

Barry’s strength is centered. Black and white columnists, sociologists, prosecutors, judges and other assorted deep thinkers and political “experts” did not and do not begin to grasp the depth of black folks’ anger and resentment at the way Barry was treated. These wiser-than-thou pontificators are flabbergasted, surprised and embarrassed now because from their high perches in academia, plush corporate boardrooms, and government offices they failed to discern that the treatment of Barry mirrored the way so many of us are treated daily. Barry represents us. Barry is us. Indeed, these days there is little shame associated with black men going to jail. Almost every black person in this republic knows or knows of a black male in jail, or strung out on something, or who has fallen into one of the myriad other traps and dead ends set up just for us. Do we abandon these brothers, or try to redeem them, a la’ Marion Barry?

Marion Barry is the only Black male “leader” in living memory who has been knocked down and counted out, only to rise again through sheer personal will and with a clear understanding of who the real enemy is. Through Barry, black youth are declaring, “Enough is enough!”

They make this proclamation in the names of Marcus Garvey, Adam Clayton Powell, Medgar Evans, Malcolm X, Dr. King, Fred Hampton, Harold Washington, Ben Chavis, and countless numbers of other nameless, voiceless, faceless black men who dared stand up for themselves and their people only to be laid low by the forces of evil.

Herbert Dyer, Jr. is a Chicago-based freelance writer. Herb may be reached at: Read other articles by Herb.