“Hello winners!” the trainer announced to the room full of anxious teen participants in Mayor Marion Barry's Youth Leadership (MBYLI) program in 1987. I was one of them. It was the height of the crack epidemic in the District, then known fondly as the Chocolate City, and there were very few young people living in poverty who had not succumbed, in some way, to the lure of the drug trade's fast money. At go-gos around the city, musicians coined the phrase "DC doesn't stand for Dodge City," because of multiple shootings and a murder rate that had ballooned to 225 killings that year.
As the trainers greeted us with "Hello winners," we answered:
"Standing in the room are the greatest, most committed, most responsible group of people, the world has ever known…If it is to be, It is up to me. Yes I can, yes I will. Yes we can, yes we will. I am, we are, the greatest! Acknowledge yourself!"
We said this every morning for the two-week Mayor Barry's Youth Leadership program on the campus of Howard University. There were 500 of us; teens from every part of the District. We were there for free. For many of us this was our first time on a college campus. Many of us went home to impoverished households after the two-week program, but within the walls of Howard University, young people were offered a support system that many had never seen in their personal lives. We shared private stories within our group to break down walls, we built trust and bonded with other participants. Trainers built confidence in students who had never set foot on a stage before at the talent show where no one was allowed to "boo" a participant. The program, originally designed as platform for youth to get started in politics, showed how local government worked by giving young people the opportunity to run for offices including Ward councilmen, At-Large City Councilmen, Council Chairmen and Mayor. Those who were elected to those offices were given the opportunity to shadow the person actually serving in that office.
This program, along with the Summer Youth Employment Program that began in 1979, (which later expanded to a year-round program where teens, including me, were offered jobs from 4-7pm everyday after school) gave jobs to every single young person in the city who signed up at age 14. This was indicative of former mayor Marion Barry's commitment to nurturing talent locally and growing the city from within. His commitment to providing opportunities to women, to the voiceless, to black people who had previously been locked out of government jobs, is the hallmark of his legacy.
"Marion was never scared to fight for black people, even though he knew it would make him unpopular," said Kwame Brown, former chairman and at-large council member and a former member of MBYLI. "He created more black millionaires than any other mayor. White people loved him too. He developed the city that you see today–the Convention Center, MCI Center, the baseball stadium, and many other projects. He just made sure black people participated in the wealth creation."
Real estate mogul Don Peebles remembered volunteering with Barry's campaign as a 14 year old and getting the activist bug.
"At 24 years old, he appointed me to the property tax appeal board, one of the most important boards in the city," Peebles, the son of an auto mechanic and single mother remembered. "I built a building on Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. that launched my development career. He took a chance on me and was criticized by the Washington Post for doing so. I finished early and under budget and it began the revitalization of Anacostia."
On Twitter and around the city the most immediate reaction to his death has been, "Marion Barry gave me my first job. I can't believe he's dead. I thought he was invincible."
Actor Jeffrey Wright took to Twitter saying: "I got my first job because of Marion Barry's summer job program. RIP Marion Barry. Ward 7, stand up! Who said it was easy?"
Barry had a commitment to young people, the poor, elderly and the otherwise neglected and disenfranchised in the city because he lived it himself. Born the third of ten children in poverty in Itta Bena on the Mississippi Delta, he was raised by a single mother and picked cotton as a boy. He would beat the odds, earning a master's degree in Chemistry from Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. He had a photogenic mind and never wrote down anyone's telephone number. Later, he was a couple of credits shy of earning a PhD in Chemistry, but chose his work in the Student Non-Violent Committee (SNCC) and discontinued his studies. He understood at an early age, the power of economic opportunities.
"In doing business around the country I realized that DC was the envy of every other city–NY, Miami, Chicago–because it was the Mecca of African American entrepreneurship," said Peebles. "Marion wasn't afraid to upset the apple cart. He created black billionaires like Bob Johnson when he allowed him to have BET. He fought hard. In 1980, he fought for a law that required 35 percent of contracts to go to minority firms. A get-along kind of mayor would never have had those results."
"He worked hard to provide opportunities for the underserved for more than 40 years," said Debra Lee. "He was also instrumental in improving opportunities for Washington-based businesses, and his support was critical to the growth of BET."
At his core, Barry was an activist. He fought a long fight for DC statehood and voting rights for District residents. Marshall Brown, father to politician Kwame Brown worked with him during his SNCC days and helped him with the Pride program which sought to hire black men who were unemployed. Pride served as the precursor to the summer jobs program, hiring teenagers to clean the streets. As the first chairman of SNCC, Barry participated in lunch counter sit-ins in Nashville and boycotts. After the uprisings following Dr. King's assassination, he worked with Giant supermarket to make sure people had food in neighborhoods that were destroyed, personally driving a truck to deliver food to people in the housing projects.
"We hosted a bus boycott for the company that was in DC before Metro took over. We wanted them to hire black drivers," remembered Marshall. "They opted to go out of business and sell it to Metro before they hired blacks."
Barry served as president of the school board in the 1970s, advocating for a larger budget for education and a raise for teachers.
He was elected an at large member of Washington's first elected city council.
His activism wasn't lost when he made the transition to politics. "He was one of the best political strategists to come out of the civil rights movement," said Donna Brazile.
But ultimately, it was Barry's personal touch that made him so beloved. We knew, as kids, what his flaws were because he wasn't good at hiding them. But he would talk to you and remember your name. And he would remember your sister's name and your mom's name, though he hadn't seen any of them in years.
"He never had a whole bunch of money, but he would still make sure somebody ate," remembers Kwame about Barry. "He would say, 'Go over there to that place and tell them Marion sent you and that they need to get you a hamburger.'"
"He would invite people who lived in public housing into his office and a billionaire businessman. He was charming. He would treat them both the same and remember their names when he saw them again," remembered Peebles.
In January 1990 an FBI sting landed Barry six months in a federal prison for possession of crack cocaine. When he was released he was re-elected to DC Council in 1992 and eventually became the mayor again.
There are those that will reduce his legacy to grainy footage of him sitting on the edge of a bed in a hotel room, dumbfounded, angrily saying a phrase that would be commodified on t-shirts. That is also part of his story–womanizing and battling a debilitating disease of addiction. The worst parts of himself were exposed to the world. It's also everyone's story of flawed humanity.
The "Mayor for Life" as District residents affectionately referred to him served three terms as the mayor of DC and a fourth term as the city's chief executive. He was 78 when he died Sunday.
"He reminded me of Lyndon Johnson in his policies," said Peebles. "He was a flawed giant. He would take an enemy and turn them into a friend. He wasn't petty like many politicians."
"Marion told me his biggest regret was that he didn't focus enough on education," said Kwame. "You never hear that from legends. That there were some things you wished you had done better. He realized he had to tell his own story. He realized the media would never treat him fairly. In the last five years he thought a lot about his legacy. He wanted to tell his side of the story."
He got the chance to do that in his memoir, "Mayor for Life," this past fall.
Barry recited a mantra regularly to young people and politicians like Kwame that he worked with on council to "never forget where you came from." The 14-year-old girl in me that worked all year-round in his jobs program and watched him smile and tell us we would be great one day was listening.
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