With crime on the rise in cities across America, along with rising unemployment, housing insecurity, and homelessness, it is high time to revisit the legacy of former Washington, DC, Mayor Marion Barry. For readers who only know Barry’s name because of comedian Chris Rock’s now infamous monologue about the late mayor and his crack addiction, the suggestion that he deserves to be remembered as more than a punch line might seem surprising. Barry’s drug use was captured on camera after the federal government conducted a costly and time-consuming sting operation. What many may not know or remember are Barry’s efforts to promote youth employment, and his steadfast belief that Black Americans should be able to find work, live, and self-govern in the District of Columbia. After the first (of four) mayoral electoral wins in 1979, Barry became a national symbol for urban centers across the nation.
Barry had his fair share of troubles and controversies, especially during the latter stage of his political tenure. Many of those who remember Barry at all would rather focus on his addictions, corruption, his flip-flop on marriage equity, and his remarks pertaining to Asian American businesses, which he called “dirty shops.” However, Barry’s commitment to Black people and urban centers should not be overshadowed by actions that brought disgrace upon the mayor himself as well as on the city of Washington, DC Barry was a flawed human whose dedication to the civil rights movement and uplift of Black Americans is at the bare minimum worthy of remembrance, discussion, and debate.
It should come as no surprise, however, that the moment Washingtonians elected Barry as their first Black mayor—long before there was any hint of scandal—the federal government immediately removed many of his executive powers and began cutting federal funding to the district. The relationship between Washington, DC, and Congress has always been contentious, even before the city became majority-Black in 1957. As a former SNCC leaderone of the architects of the Free DC movement in 1965, and a leader in various groups campaigning for increased self-rule in the district, Barry had ambitious plans, but found himself severely limited in what he could actually do for DC residents once he became mayor.
Although residents of the district pay federal taxes, they do not have representation in the Senate; nor do they have a voting member of the House of Representatives. (Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton, the district’s delegate, is entitled to sit in the House of Representatives and participate in committee votes, and can offer amendments in the Committee of the Whole, but she isn’t allowed to take part in legislative floor votes. ) As many DC residents will tell you, they suffer from a severe case of taxation without adequate representation.
Yet, even within those very real constraints, Barry was determined to lead his city in ways that current urban mayors should follow. As cities across the country experience budget constraints on the state and federal level and grapple with devastatingly high levels of unemployment and increases in crime, Barry’s vision of roughly 40 years ago should serve as a blueprint and a beacon for current mayors.