‘Mayor for life’ Marion Barry on poverty, Machiavelli and Rob Ford

Before his passing, Barry wanted the world to know there was much more to his story than his arrest for crack cocaine

Update Nov. 24, 2014: In the 40-year history of District of Columbia self-rule, Marion Barry "outshone every politician" that came before and after his four terms as mayor. But his six-month term in federal prison for drug possession was a black eye for Barry, whose perception would later take a hit when the city was "flirting with bankruptcy from years of bloated, unaccountable government, much of it under Barry." Still, Barry became synonymous with Washington, D.C., and its highs and lows. Muriel Bowser, the city's mayor-elect, described Barry as an "inspiration to so many people and a fighter for people."

Barry died Sunday at 78. No cause of death was immediately given.

In July, Barry told America Tonight his story, from Mississippi cotton fields to the executive offices of the District of Columbia. Tune in to America Tonight Monday at 9 p.m. ET to catch one of the legendary mayor's last TV interviews.


WASHINGTON – If there’s one thing anybody knows about Marion Barry, it’s that in the early 1990s, in the height of the crack epidemic and long before Toronto Mayor Rob Ford’s troubles, he is the mayor that got busted.

Caught smoking crack in an FBI sting, Barry was arrested and convicted and spent six months in a federal prison. But as his long career winds down, he wants the world to know there’s so much more to his story than “bitch set me up.”

So he wrote a book – one with plenty of twists. As a teenager, dirt poor in the segregated South, Barry was also an Eagle Scout and a budding chemist. The first in his family to go to college and then to get a master’s degree, he was swept away from his Ph.D. studies by the tumultuous politics of the 1960s and the civil rights movement. He made history as the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and organizer of Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington, and became a community organizer and city councilman before serving a record four terms as the mayor of Washington, D.C.

He was so beloved, Barry was voted back into office after his stint in the slammer. Now pushing 80, he’s still the longtime representative of the city’s troubled Ward 8. And despite brushes with the law and the IRS, alcohol and drug counseling, and sanctions from the City Council, he’s so popular that many residents call him “mayor for life.”

His work also earned him a spotlight in the civil rights exhibit in the Newseum. He hadn’t paid a visit yet, so we invited him to check it out and tell us about his place in history. Here is an edited, condensed transcript of our discussion.

After all these years, people still call you mayor.

Well, I’ve earned it. I was born 78 years ago in a small town in Mississippi in a segregated society, very poor, very poor. And that sounds kind of strange to people who don’t understand America because we are considered the richest country in the world, the most powerful country. Instead, we have a lot of poverty, and most people who are born in poverty die in poverty, and that’s why my story is so incredible … I lived in a house, think about this, in Mississippi: no running water, no electricity, used kerosene lamps, candles.

And you worked in the fields.

Worked in cotton, which is tedious, 10 hours a day, $3 a day. Can you imagine that? Thirty cents an hour in America? No.

Marion Barry as a teenager.
Marion Barry

But you write in your book about how you were saving money. You figured out ways to make money and save money, even when you were living that hard life.

Well, God blessed me with a lot of fortitude, a lot of courage, a lot of resilience, and I don’t know, it only could come from God because in my community I didn’t have any role models to stand up and say, “Here’s how you do it.” It’s just inside of me … I didn’t want to live in poverty all that time. Now what happened in some communities of poverty, you get so accustomed to it that you seem like you like it. The people don’t like it.

One thing that most surprised me about you in reading your book was that you were an Eagle Scout.

Absolutely. I was one of the first black Eagle Scouts in all of Tennessee. I got into Scouting very early. They taught me a lot of leadership skills because I got a lot of merit badges in swimming and lifesaving, that kind of thing.

What led you to chemistry? Because that was the second thing that really surprised me about you.

In Memphis, there were about five or six things you could do. You could either be a teacher, a preacher, a dentist, a doctor or a social worker … I didn’t want to be any of those. And so I said, I’m going to go into science … And I went into chemistry and perfected it. Did very well in my studies, and that was that.

There’s something about science, about chemistry, that is in a sense colorblind.

Two parts of hydrogen, one part of oxygen is water all over the world. Whoever you are, whether you speak Latin or Spanish or French or English or some other kind of language, Chinese, Japanese, it’s the same.

Washington was a sleepy Southern town when I came in ’65 … I have transformed Washington into a metropolis.

Marion Barry

Take me back to the summer of the student nonviolent movement. There were beatings and murders of civil rights workers. Did you worry that would happen to you?

I guess like a war, when you’re in it you don’t realize it. Because I think about the greater good when I’m doing and who am I helping … And all this was building blocks, building me to a point where I could be a mayor of our great city for 16 years. Sixteen years. We had a great government. And any corruption I had, a couple of people did some corrupt things, but that’s true of anything.

Then-Mayor Marion Barry leaving U.S. District Court in 1990.

When you look back on your time as mayor here, what are the things that you are most proud of?

Oh, so much of it. Washington was a sleepy Southern town when I came in ’65 …  I have transformed Washington into a metropolis … I knew things weren’t right. I knew we had to develop downtown. Knew we had to develop our neighborhoods, we knew we had to do summer jobs for everybody … And I had that on my head and so it was like a road map for success for our city … People called me the job czar.

What do you see now that you don’t like?

The ward I represent, Ward 8, has average income per family of $26,000, whereas in another part of town, which is predominantly white — I don’t condemn those people for working hard at making money — but the average income is $200,000. Two hundred thousand dollars. Same city. We’ve become a city of haves and have-nots, and about a third of our people are in the have-not category. And … they’re not going anywhere.

How do you break the cycle for those young people now who are born into poverty?

I think you have to have role models … There are black boys in the Ward 8, low-income communities, [who] have never ever seen a black man get up and go to work on time. So we’ve got to change the image. We’re working out with a black male project in elementary schools. Let’s have more black men for “principalship,” so these boys can say, “Oh, I can be like Mr. Jones, I can be like Mr. Barry,” something like that.

I mean, I’ve read Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’ quite a bit. I’m not deceptive. I think Machiavelli was deceptive, be it fooling people, trying to act like and be like that, or act like this one way and deceptive over here. I’m not even close to that.

What keeps you in politics now?

My desire to help somebody along the way. I could have retired a long time ago. That wouldn’t be happy, sitting at home or doing other kinds of things … God put me on this path. You know, I got shot in March of ’77 by a mob of Muslims and that was traumatic.

Editor's note: In 1977, Barry was wounded during a siege on three buildings in Washington, D.C. A dozen gunmen formerly associated with the Nation of Islam seized the buildings. Then a City Council member, Barry was hit by a ricocheted bullet and rushed to the hospital.

Do you still think about that, about having been shot?

Well, no, no. Who wants to live that kind of life? I don’t. It happened. God saved me from being killed. There were two people killed that day — one security guard and one reporter — and so I look on the bright side of that. That’s why I’m able to do so much for so many … At some point, God’s going to take me away from here, but my vision, my inspiration, my educational things I do, will live on and on.

Marion Barry, a few days before he was busted by the FBI.

Do you think that you will run again for Council?

My term ends in ’16, but you know you don’t ask that kind of question. I’m too smart for that.

One of your political colleagues once said that the way to understand Marion Barry was to read this, and he pulled out a copy of Machiavelli’s “The Prince.” As a matter of fact, he was so convinced that the book described your ability to play the game of chess, he had two copies of Machiavelli’s “The Prince.”

I don’t agree with that. I mean, I’ve read Machiavelli’s “The Prince” quite a bit. I’m not deceptive. I think Machiavelli was deceptive, be it fooling people, trying to act like and be like that, or act like this one way and deceptive over here. I’m not even close to that. And so if I’m going to be compared to somebody, don’t do Machiavelli. Do somebody else.

As mayor, you were not without your share of controversies. So I’m wondering what your thoughts are about a mayor from my country [Canada], who has proven himself to be kind of controversial.

I reject the comparison.

In 1971, Marion Barry was elected to the school board.
Getty Images

I’m not comparing you. I said, I wonder what your thoughts are.

I don’t have any thoughts except that my career has just been way above Rob Ford’s in terms of accomplishing things. You know, I understand what he’s going through, but I don’t want to be compared to him ever in life because we’re not on the same level of commitment to our people.

When you look back at everything you’ve done, is there a moment that stands out for you as a moment that you think to yourself, that is the most important thing?

One of the moments that stands out to me, I didn’t understand it at the time … In the South, the domestic help went to the back of the house and they were called by their first names. My mother said, “No, I’m good enough to take care of your snotty-nosed kids and take care of cooking for you and cleaning for you,” and said, “I’m good enough to go through the front door”… And I didn’t understand still later that took a lot of courage, she lost a lot of jobs doing that. Not only doing that, she also told them, “My name’s not Mattie, my name’s Miss Cummings.”

The need to demand respect.

Yeah, you got to do that. But in order to get respect you have to give respect too.

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