No one is neutral about D.C. “Mayor for Life” Marion Shepilov Barry Jr. You either love him or despise him; there is no in-between. He gave no room for in-between. He was, indeed, “all that!”
The larger than life “People’s Prodigal Prince,” as I once dubbed him while he was singing his redemption song, was beloved or berated, even in death. Some sobbed; some said good riddance when they heard the news of his passing on Nov. 23 after long-suffering health complications.
Will the good he did for others outweigh the bad he did to himself? I hope so. His supporters will have to insist so. “I helped a lot, a lot, a lot of people,” he said in a February radio interview with me. And his autobiographical narrative is replete with examples of his trademark altruism, as it should be.
For those of us in the D.C. press corps who spent decades chasing him, he was remembered by a colleague as, “The gift that keeps on giving.” Stories, that is: We never had to wait long before bodacious Barry would provide cannon fodder for a front page story, or a “breaking news” live shot, or even, in my case, the once-in-a-lifetime “Extra” edition.
To know Barry and all his complexities – and there were many as his political trajectory went from school board to D.C. Council member to mayor and back to the council as its Ward 8 representative — was not necessary to grow to like him, but at the very least to learn to respect him as a masterful politician, as I did despite all his shenanigans I took him to task for over the years. And, quiet as it’s kept, so did others in the seemingly hostile local press corps. His stories made several successful journalism careers, including mine.
Barry was anything but dumb or dull. Few people knew that he possessed such a brilliant mind, so much so that he was on his way to earning a doctorate degree in chemistry, but was serendipitously derailed by his quick rise in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) by his natural leadership qualities and his innate yearning to be a man of the people, or as he often said, “the lost, the least, and the left out.”
The young, brash Brother Barry was the embodiment of all many folks believed the Civil Rights Movement would bring them. He was James Brown’s model for “say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud.” The frail, senior Barry may have lost that “Pride Inc.,” ‘60s stride in his step, but he never lost the agitator’s passion in his voice to fight for those who couldn’t fight for themselves. Even at his darkest hour, the inspiration and the lesson learned was “if Barry can fall and get back up, so can I.”
D.C. businessman Joe Johnson told me that he and “MB,” as close friends called him, spoke hours before the Ward 8 councilman collapsed and died. “Marion was upset about businesses not giving him enough money to buy turkeys for his Thanksgiving giveaway,” Johnson said. “[Barry] said, ‘Man, I got to get more turkeys’.”
Even to his last breath, Barry was more worried about others than himself.
As a personal example, he discovered my late mother’s name and her phone number on one of his many trips to the Northwest senior citizen apartment building she lived in. He phoned her so often to check on her health, that one day she asked, “Would you please tell Marion Barry to stop calling me?”
Once when I visited him in Howard University Hospital, he had all manner of tubes coming out of him and breathing machines hissing and blowing steam. Barry looked over to the panoramic picture window of the VIP suite, waved his hand across the landscape view and said, “How do you like my city I built?” I couldn’t help it; we both burst out in laughter. “Indeed, you did.”
In what would be my last broadcast interview with him earlier this year on the “Lyndia Grant: Think on These Things Show,” a hospitalized Barry was not expected to live much longer. News organizations all over town were dusting off his obituary. He, however, was preparing for his 78th birthday party.
“Hell, I got more than nine lives,” that self-assured, sly cat said referring to the 2010 HBO documentary “The Nine Lives of Marion Barry.”
Clearly he spent them all, but not without being a man of the people; indeed, “The People’s Prodigal Prince.”