Nationally, many people knew Washington, D.C.’s “Mayor for Life” Marion Barry for drug use. And then many people criticized Washingtonians for re-electing him. Despite his transgressions, as a politician, he did amazing things for Washington, D.C. My generation, in particular, benefited (and still benefits) from his time as mayor due to our access to jobs as teenagers. When D.C. was the murder capital of the world, Mayor Barry was one of our beacons of hope and did his best to ensure a generation of kids had other opportunities than the streets. If you are not from Washington, D.C. or are not familiar with the politician that Marion Barry was, I implore you to do some research today. Speak to a D.C. resident, look up his policies. Marion Barry is one of the best mayors of any American city in our lifetime. I promise you that you will be surprised and enlightened by his work, be it in the Civil Rights Movement or his formal political life.
Washington, D.C. didn’t have a mayor until 1975 with the District of Columbia Home Rule Act, allowing us to govern our own city. We were previously run completely by Congress. There are still aspects about us being a federal district that affect our voting power in the United States Congress (hence the term “Taxation Without Representation”).
In 1975, we got our city council, for which Marion Barry served. Our first mayor was Walter Washington. Barry then defeated Washington after his term was up. He served three consecutive terms, then got arrested for drugs, and came back and was re-elected.
One of his major accomplishments was the Summer Youth Initiative, which gave thousands of jobs to teenagers. The majority of Washingtonians received their first job because of this program (which still exists). In addition, he is considered the first civil rights activist to be named mayor of an American city, so for an all Black city to be led by someone who fought for Black people, that was another plus. Most importantly, it was his personality and accessibility. He was very visible and tangible.
In a city that has only had a mayor for 39 years, Barry was mayor for 16 of them, but was a city councilman for all by 8 of those years (a total of 31 years of service). Not many mayors begin as councilmen, go to the top and become mayor, and then go back to being a councilman.
This is why Washingtonians love Barry, in my objective opinion.
I share this because I don’t know how many people outside of D.C. (or people who move here) know about Washington, D.C.’s unique political history as far Home Rule and our legal connection to Congress, the true meaning of Taxation Without Representation (which still is the case today) or that Barry’s drug use, although a major flaw, will never supersede his positive effect on the city. Despite D.C. being a very old city, it is very young in governing itself due to it being the capital of the United States and the only city in America not attached to a state. And these nuances are why many of its natives are very passionate about what goes on and who cares about the people in its city limits. Barry’s passing is a reminder of an era of leaders who helped usher in this major change with the soul of its residents.
Kyle “Scoop” Yeldell is a 2006 graduate of Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia where he was initiated into the Psi Chapter of Omega Psi Phi, Fraternity, Incorporated.