By Omar Tyree
My admiration of Marion Barry Jr., who died Nov. 23, began long before I co-authored his autobiography, Mayor for Life: The Incredible Story of Marion Barry Jr.
As an undergraduate student at Howard University’s School of Communications in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I learned first-hand how Mayor Barry had opened up the gates of government bureaucracy to make sure that more people benefited from his culturally inclusive policies, including summer employment and job training for young people with scholarship programs where the poor could receive a higher education at several Washington-based colleges and universities.
In ceremonies last week, Barry was hailed for using his elected power to execute real change and opportunity—not only for the African-American community, but for women, the gay community, the elderly, the youth and thousands of underutilized professionals.
Mayor Barry put tax monies to work for the advancement, improvement and the economic progress of the people, which included opportunities for those who lived or later moved to the Maryland and Northern Virginia suburbs, creating multiple generations of families touched or inspired by his bold, unwavering and determined example of fearless and effective leadership.
So when Barry’s darkest times arrived, revealing his embarrassing addictions to recreational drugs, alcohol, ego trips and relationships with women who were not his wife, I was forced to navigate an inevitable quagmire. And I found myself explaining to my family and friends back home in Philadelphia and elsewhere why the citizens of Washington, D.C. would “still vote for that man again.”
Only those immersed in D.C. culture could truly understand the immense loyalty and love there for Barry. After five years, including my love and marriage to a D.C-raised and bred woman, I got it then and still get it now. It takes a special man to do what he says he’s going to do for the benefit of people while in office, in spite of his struggles against personal demons and outside political pressure to do otherwise. The citizens of DC understood that, so they felt compelled to support an honestly flawed man who possessed wit, heart and soul that they could relate to, and who executed government policies with fairness, rather than to support an illusion of a perfect man or woman who would only look the part and talk the part but never walk in their shoes.
But Marion Barry Jr. was much more than a tailored-suit-wearing picture taker and talker, he was a walker for the people, who demonstrated his willingness to march up and down the streets with them and wear out a closetful of shoes to trek those extra miles for those who needed him the most. That’s why the people of D.C. continued to support him.
That’s why it became pivotal in the twilight of his years for Barry to sit down and document his legacy in a book, not merely to explain one fateful night at a downtown Washington hotel room, but to explain the other 365 days times 78 years of his full life of service.
When Barry passed away, he was still committed to serving the people as the councilmember of Ward 8, providing a new generation of leaders in the District with fresh ideas and the benefit of his vast experience in formulating policy.
Mayor Barry, a poor Mississippi-born farmer boy, was reared in Memphis and was a big brother, a scholar with a Master’s Degree in chemistry; he stopped just short or earning a doctorate before getting fully immersed in the Civil Rights Movement. He became the first chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Atlanta-based organization that also birthed Congressman John Lewis (D-Ga.) and former NAACP Board Chairman Julian Bond.
And the extensive list of events, of organization, of activism and inclusive of practices regarding government contracts, hiring, housing, education and healthcare that the man championed once he arrived in the District, provide more than a foundation from which to build and to celebrate a long and proud legacy.
Rest in Peace, Brother Barry. May our next generation be as tireless, courageous, determined and dogged in their work as you were in yours. May they be granted the passion, the humility and the fortitude to get back up and fight when knocked down, like you did throughout your life. You were a man who refused to go away and hide. You fulfilled your life’s purpose in the fashion the many great and flawed men and women of the Bible. And now you’ve written and published your own book for us to read, to be inspired by, and to cite chapter and verse… just like the Good Book.
Omar Tyree is a New York Times bestselling author, professional journalist, lecturer, advocate of urban literacy and an NAACP Image Award winner for Outstanding Fiction @ www.OmarTyree.com. He has published 27 books and sold more than 2.5 million copies worldwide, including co-authoring Mayor For Life; The Incredible Story of Marion Barry Jr.