For much of his public life in the District of Columbia, Ward 8 Councilman Marion Barry has been a polarizing figure in the city. As his career winds down, the group of people who supported Barry in his early days continues to support him now.
A poll released in July by the Washington Post shows that 52 percent of those polled questioned had a favorable opinion of Barry. The only politician who was more highly regarded was Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), who drew a 72 percent favorable rating.
Neither Mayor Vincent C. Gray nor six other council members attracted favorable ratings above 40 percent.
Some local residents and experts said voters link Barry with prosperity. Many of them remember him for pumping money into programs to turn back blighted neighborhoods and to provide summer jobs for young people. Many African Americans moved into the middle class working in D.C. Government jobs made available after Barry bolstered Black hiring as mayor.
“Marion Barry is for the city and [has] always been for the city,” said Anthony Frye, 46, a Federal Aviation Administration mechanic. “These other politicians are just trying to get some power.”
Frye said because of Barry, he received his first job as a teenager, which gave him his first real taste of economic freedom. Duane Henderson, 29, of Northwest, agreed.
“The high percentage of successful minority families in the Washington area is directly related to the work Barry did in the 70s,” said Henderson, an IT specialist. “Because of him, our parents had a chance at earning a fair wage. Because our parents had a chance, we have a chance.”
Barry was a central figure in the national civil rights movement in the 1960s and in D.C. in the 1970s, which many older D.C. residents remember. He arrived in the city in 1965 to set up a chapter of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. He immediately immersed himself in the city’s politics as he served as a leader of the Free D.C. Movement, which advocated for home rule in the city and then helped create PRIDE, Inc., a non-profit, federally funded organization that focused on training for the unemployed.
Despite the controversies that had swirled around him, Barry has remained beloved by many of those who believe he has been unfairly targeted by law enforcement officials seeking to discredit him.
Howard University political science Professor Lorenzo Morris said many Black D.C. residents, will dismiss his problems as personal and not a misuse of the public’s trust. They focus on what Barry is able to accomplish in the city.
“Some people have respect for him as a city leader as well and I don’t think that is going to change in many parts of the African-American community and that includes a large part of Ward 8 as well as other wards in the city,” Morris said.
Southeast Washington resident Tim Martin, 50, says he has fond memories of Barry but thinks it’s time for him to move on to other ventures.
“He was a good mayor when he was in place,” said Martin. “I think he needs to sit down a while. He has done his part.”