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Straight No Chaser: Marion Barry will be Mayor for Life

gloria_winston_al-sarag2Editorial by Gloria Winston Al-Sarag

Some columns have been harder to write than others.

I have literally sat down more than once to write about, and reflect upon, my personal feelings regarding D.C.’s late, great, mayor for life, Marion Barry.

Many tributes have been given, and many words of truth and comfort have found their way to social media as well.

But, what I wanted to avoid was duplicating anyone else’s experience with this icon, because I have had my own to reflect upon.

Marion Barrys don’t come along every day, and, although we have black men and women representing their constituency on a variety of levels these days; if they cared as much about their people as Marion Barry cared about his, then, they too would be considered above the rest.

I first met Marion Barry in the early 1970s, when I managed a supper club in D.C. called “Ed Murphy’s.”

Barry, and his wife at the time, had been running a not-for-profit organization called PRIDE.

Marion had also been a personal friend of the club owner I worked for, Ed Murphy; and he used to frequent the place with politicians, community folks, and actors like Robert Hooks, Calvin Lockhart, and other celebrities.

I do not recall if he had been a councilman at the time, but I do remember that, after he was shot, and after home rule passed, he had become a candidate for mayor.

My memory is blurry, and I don’t recall the entire sequence of events, but I do recall, after leaving D.C., that Marion Barry had become the first ELECTED mayor in the District of Columbia.

All other mayors had been SELECTED, and appointed by Congress.

See, in D.C., there have been only two levels of government, federal and district.

And, because D.C. is still not a state, and has been fighting for statehood, there has been no state or county government of which to speak.

Yes, the people of D.C. have been taxed, without representation, in Congress.

And, their elected people in Congress can’t vote on the floor.

They can only vote in committee.

Many people who live outside of D.C. don’t realize this situation has yet to change.

D.C. citizens, on a federal level, are truly citizens who have been paying taxes with no representation.

As a result, the home-rule battle had been one that always found Marion Barry in hot water with his detractors.

But, I digress.

After Ed Murphy received $10 million from the Nixon administration, the supper club closed, and ground was broken to build a hotel called “Harambee House” (circa 1975).

It later became the Howard Inn.

As a matter of fact, when Barry built the new executive building for D.C., at 14th and U streets, Ed Murphy opened his last supper club on the ground floor, years later.

I returned to Rochester, where I remained until 1983.

Then, I returned to D.C., and was hired as a national staff person for Rev. Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaign.

It had been then that I became reacquainted with the mayor of D.C.

He had been a staunch supporter of Rev. Jackson, and frequented our offices on M St. often.

Marion Barry had personality.

His warm and friendly demeanor was far from just political.

He had genuinely been a likeable person.

One of the jobs, out of five, I had done for the Jackson campaign was as a field organizer who worked in nine different states to GOTV.

And, as my blessings would have it, I had been working in St. Louis the week before the U.S. Black Conference of Mayors was due to hold a conference.

My field director, Anita Bonds, had held me over to assist the mayor with his campaigning, and bid to become the next president of the Black Conference of Mayors.

I will never forget the night of his big reception, which had been planned eloquently, to get him lots of votes from the other black mayors in attendance.

Mayor Johnny Ford was stepping down as president, to become president of the International Conference of Black Mayors, which had been created that same year.

And, Barry’s competition for the presidency, the mayor of East St. Louis, had also scheduled a reception at his parents’ night club the same night in East St. Louis.

ME, being from the country, I had been at a loss as to what to wear for work at the reception table.

I was put in the position, along with two other co-workers, to sign in ALL of the guests.

All black mayors, from all over the US.

And, at the time, I had no idea we had as many black mayors as we did in this country.

I was totally in awe.

The experience, rubbing elbows with so many black mayors, had not only been an honor, and humbling, but there was one hilarious incident I must share.

The mayor of St. Louis had a reception at 5 p.m., the same day as Barry’s Reception.

And, I went to City Hall to see how everyone was dressed, so that I would not be over- or under- dressed.

Everyone had been in tuxes and gowns, so, I took my country self back to my hotel and got righteous.

In fact, I wound up riding in a limo, because a limo driver noticed how I thought I was in New York City, trying to hail a cab, and offered to take me to my hotel.

He then took me to the Sheraton, where I was to work at the reception.

I had not realized, however, that Mayor Barry had decided not to attend the 5 p.m. reception, and had instead gone to play tennis with his body guard.

Then, when I arrived at the Sheraton, my friend the limo driver admonished me, and asked me to please let him open my door.

It had been clear I had not had the occasion to ride in limos often.

Just as I exited the limo, Marion Barry and bodyguard were walking down the sidewalk.

The mayor stopped in his tracks, with his mouth wide open, when I stepped out of the limo.

He said to me, laughing harder than usual, “Dahyumm, how much is Jesse paying you?”

We laughed about that often, afterward, because I had been one of seven people who wanted to remain in D.C. after the Jackson campaign ended, and I went to work for the mayor as a community organizer for the D.C. Department of Housing.

I had a staff of 14 resident organizers who had to live on public housing property even to qualify to be on my staff.

Our goals had been to organize public housing residents, in order to help then become self-sufficient, and teach them how to obtain their own resources via proposal writing, as opposed to waiting for the government to do anything for them.

I had always considered our department to be more like an arm of public relations for the mayor.

Nonetheless, we kept his public housing constituents happy, especially his seniors.

D.C., at the time, had 46 family properties and 14 senior buildings.

And, anyone who knew Mayor Barry knew he would do anything for his seniors and his youth.

He had been determined to create job opportunities for youth in the summer.

I could go on and on about Mayor Marion Barry.

Yet, space will not permit me to mention all the great accomplishments I am aware he made for his people.

I even won a bet when he was released from prison.

I had been back in Rochester again, and told folks he would be mayor of D.C., if he wanted to be.

Folks who did not know him, had never met him, and had certainly never worked for him, laughed.

And, one bet me $100 that, as an “ex-con,” he would be through in the political arena.

Of course, I won the money when Barry got elected to his third term, not long after being released from prison.

See, the moral of the story is, when you take care of your people, they take care of you.

He also went on to win a fourth term, and had been a councilman when he left this dimension.

God did not order my steps for me to attend his funeral, with the thousands who did, but I had been there, spiritually.

Mayor Marion Barry had been a man among men.

His manhood, his brand of leadership, and his ability to overcome the odds were all connected to his love for his people, and their love for him.

He will be missed, but I guarantee you never forgotten, because he will always be remembered as D.C.’s “mayor for life.”