Fourtime mayor of Washington, D.C., Marion Barry is a charismatic and controversial figure in American city politics. Barry brought energy and initiative to the fledging Washington, D.C., home rule government, but his mayoralty was stained by allegations of corruption. His 1990 conviction on misdemeanor charges of crackcocaine possession forced him out of office and made the District of Columbia and its African American-led government an object of national derision.
Barry was born in 1936 in Itta Bena, Mississippi, a tiny delta community. His father died when Barry was a young child, and his mother moved the family to Memphis, Tennessee in 1940. His mother remarried, and Barry grew up in a working-class household which included his two sisters, two half sisters, and three stepsisters. He attended LeMoyne College in Memphis, and went on to do graduate work in chemistry at Fisk University in Nashville, at the University of Kansas, and at the University of Tennessee.
Barry's entry into politics came in 1960 when, while still a graduate student at Fisk, he became a part of the Nashville lunch counter sitins. In that same year, he was elected the first chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). In 1964 he abandoned his graduate studies to become a fulltime civil rights activist and SNCC fundraiser, assigned first to New York City and then, in 1965, to Washington, D.C.
Once in Washington, Barry quickly established himself on the local political scene, organizing bus boycotts to protest fare increases and initiating the “Free D.C.” movement, which worked to gain home rule for the city. In 1967, Barry established a job training program, Pride, Inc., which was generously supported by federal Department of Labor grants. The program was ultimately damaged by corruption scandals, however. In 1971, Barry won a seat on Washington's first elected school board. In 1973 the city was granted partial home rule, and Barry won election as an atlarge member of the D.C. Council in 1974 and again in 1976.
In 1978, Barry won the mayoralty with strong support from white liberals and an effusive Washington Post endorsement. He was credited in his first term both with opening up Washington government to the city's underrepresented African American community and with bringing order to the city's chaotic finances. He was reelected in 1982, and again in 1986, but by that time his political base had eroded due both to the city's downward financial spiral and to allegations of his drug use and sexual misconduct. In January 1990, Barry was videotaped smoking crackcocaine by an FBI sting operation. After serving a 6-month prison term on a misdemeanor conviction, Barry returned to Washington, winning election to the D.C. Council in 1992 and regaining the mayoralty in 1994.
Barry's fourth mayoral term was marred by congressional imposition of a federal control board that sought to salvage the nation's capital from its precarious financial situation by placing the majority of city agencies into receivership. Barry declined to run for a fifth term, and he was succeeded in office by the city's CFO, Anthony Williams. Barry aborted a 2002 Council race after a confrontation with police who alleged they had found traces of crack and marijuana in Barry's car. In 2004, Barry won election to a 4-year Council term.