Marion Barry
Marion Barry

Ramani Wilson

Forbes once said “Great leaders inspire their people to reach higher, dream bigger, and achieve greater. Perhaps the most important leadership skill you can develop is the ability to provide inspiration to your team. If you inspire them to reach for the stars, they just might bring you back the moon.” Inspiring a city to reach for the stars and bringing it back to the moon was exactly what Marion Barry did for many people in Washington, D.C. Starting with co-founding Pride Incorporated, Barry opened the door for many African American men who were unemployed and inspired them to make a difference within their communities. Despite countless attempts of people trying to ruin his image and diminish his influence, Barry never backed down and was re-elected as mayor countless times. Although he stands at rest today after his many years of displaying Black pride and excellence, his impact on me as a person and my community will forever live. Because of Marion Barry, myself and many others in my community are able to have confidence in running for political positions, be employed through the Summer Youth Employment Program and unapologetically display pride in the Black community.

Say it loud! He was Black and he was proud. Just three years after being on the city council, Barry ran for mayor and won in 1978. This was the first time when African Americans of the city were able to look at politics and see someone that looked like them and related to them. Barry was a radically new kind of politician. Raised in poverty, he built a political base from Anacostia and embodied black political aspirations for many people. In a society where history and politics were solely written by white Americans for centuries, Barry set the precedent for Black politicians in the city. Because of his leadership, many minorities in my community know that we all have a chance and play a large role in politics. Personally I was inspired to learn and become more engaged in local politics because of his story. I gained the confidence to run for Ward 4 representative in the Youth Government of the MBYL Institution. This has allowed me to recognize my potential and the important role of representation in politics, and how much of a difference I can make. His determination and resilience inspired many African Americans, and opened a door to representation in politics that was never seen before. This door remains open today and it is imperative that it continues to challenge a system that is meant to tell us that our representation in politics is insignificant.

In my opinion, the most significant impact Marion Barry has had on my community today is the Summer Youth Employment Program. In describing its goals, the program strives to provide young people with opportunities of “earning money”, “gaining meaningful work experience”, as well as opportunities to “interact in positive work environments.” In a city in which systematic institutions and depressions push many young adults into the streets to lack motivation to succeed and resort to crime in order to combat harsh economic conditions, this program stands to be of the greatest solutions. Because of Marion Barry, thousands of young adults around the city have a wide range of opportunities that would not be easily provided without the program. Because of Marion Barry, many young adults are able to help provide for their families. Because of Marion Barry, many young adults are out of trouble and working in environments that help them grow as a person and as future employees and employers.

With the creation of the Summer Youth Employment Program, wonderful programs like the Marion Barry Youth Leadership Institution were created. In a room of hundreds of participants and staff in the program, young adults are able to take pride in saying that standing in that room “are the greatest, most responsible group of people this world has EVER known.” In saying those words every day, a mindset is engrained in the minds of us young adults. This mindset allows us to know that we are great and that we are going somewhere in life. Individual actions like these are significant because of how they are able to make very large impacts in each and every one of our lives. This sense of confidence provided by the program allows many participants to pose a larger threat to those in society who view us as inferior or uneducated. We are able to rise above challenges set by society and face adversity as a whole. These impacts have all been caused by the creation of this program by Marion Barry, a legend who wanted more for the youth of our city.

The legacy of Marion Barry is well related with a statement once made by Maya Angelou. Angelou explained how people will forget what you have said, people will forget what you have done, but will never forget how you have made them feel. Although the life and legacy of Barry will forever be present in the daily lives of the youth and Washingtonians, he was known as such a compelling leader because of how he made people feel. Today people are still able to feel his legacy through feeling they are able to have a role in politics as minorities, feeling purpose and motivation through SYEP and feeling a sense of pride in their communities.


Jerra Holdip

Everyone in my family knows the name of Marion Barry Jr. Despite the national perception that Marion Barry was the “crackhead” mayor, people in my family and many other D.C. residents remember Marion Barry as the person who gave them their first job, the man who got them off of the street and into voting booths, and the man who helped them learn how to become financially independent. Not only does Marion Barry’s legacy invoke all of these feelings in me, Marion Barry and the legacy he has imparted on my family and others in D.C. has meant the most to me in this way: he is the physical embodiment of “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

Before he arrived in Washington D.C., Marion Barry had been working with youth in the South to tackle to issues of civil rights in non-violent ways as the first chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Through this and other efforts to promote nonviolent solution to conflict, Marion Barry had established a reputation for reform across the country. At the time of his election as mayor, D.C. residents were disenfranchised; they were seen by Congress and the White House as an afterthought— the issues that concerned D.C. residents were not the same issues that concerned the men in Congress. They were marginalized and oppressed, and because of this, many of them had no faith in the democratic process. Before the arrival of Marion Barry, none of the people in power believed D.C. residents were worthy of even that basic American right that so many of us hold dear: the right to elect your officials. Marion Barry is responsible for many D.C. residents’ participation, specifically Black residents of D.C., in the democratic election process. According to the Washington Post, in his 4 campaigns for mayor, Marion Barry never received less than 56% of the vote and in 1982 he received more than 80% of the vote, many of his supporters Black. By contrast, Adrian Fenty, in his 2010 campaign lost not because he was a Republican candidate, but because he did not do enough to encourage Black voter turnout for his reelection. Minority involvement in voting and elections is crucial to the appointment of candidates that can produce the change we wish to see. Candidates do not prioritize the issues of those who don’t vote. By encouraging the Black population in D.C. to get out and vote for the change they wished to see, Marion Barry Jr. set an impactful precedent that forced candidates to prioritize the issues of African-American voters. This is inspiring to me because I am able to look at the current city council and see the direct result of Marion Barry’s work. Our city council is not perfect, but many of the issues that concern Black D.C. residents are issues that are reflected in the policies they create, and this is because of Marion Barry’s legacy.

Although Marion Barry created change for all residents of D.C., his legacy has left a substantial mark to me on the rights of young people in our city. Marion Barry got his start on the D.C. Board of Education where was able to reform the D.C. education system. From there he was able to encourage and empower young people to beautify their communities, receive and take advantage of their educational opportunities, and in the most reputable example: the Marion Barry Summer Youth Employment Program. This program was imperative to the success of generations of youth in the city, but specifically during that time. When the city was overrun with drug dealers, and the murder rate was skyrocketing, rather than resorting to “tough on crime” policies that only end up disproportionately incarcerating Black populations, Marion Barry turned to a more productive solution. By giving the young people of D.C. jobs, Barry was able to give them purpose. He was able to instill fiscal responsibility in youth then, and now, even in death, has given us work experience that we can put on resumes later in life. I have felt the impact of Marion Barry’s legacy the most through the Marion Barry Summer Youth Employment Program (MBSYEP) and Marion Barry Youth Leadership Institute (MBYLI). Both of these programs have taught me above all, the importance of leadership. I can honestly say that my ability to speak up and stand up for myself has been heightened as a result of my participation in these programs. MBYLI has specifically helped me with the cultivation of my leadership skills. My first day in the program, we repeated the mantra “Hello winners, standing in this room, are the greatest, most committed, most responsible group of people, this world has ever known”. Not only did this statement help create a pride in myself and in my abilities, it is also indicative of the confidence Marion Barry and his legacy gave to youth in the city. Through the programs he created, Marion Barry was able to create pride in oneself, confidence in your ability, and inspire work ethic in young people that can carry them through their entire lives.

The legacy of Marion Barry has impacted me and my community in so many different, and equally important ways. He inspired a spirit of democracy in the first generation of D.C. which has been passed on to their descendants. Barry created programs that helped, and even in his death, continue to help young people develop independence and work ethic, and he was a living example that actions really can change the world. Marion Barry saw that change needed to happen, in this city and all around the country, and he worked tirelessly to make sure this change was realized. I am inspired daily by his actions and D.C. would not be the same had it not been for his leadership.


Miles Peterson

“Press forward at all times, climbing forward toward that higher ground of the harmonious society that shapes the laws of man to the laws of God.”

These dynamic words were declared by revolutionary Harlem politician Adam Clayton Powell. Marion Barry, American politician and D.C.’s ‘Mayor for Life’, regards Powell as his first political hero. Barry lead a life based on truth; he lived and moved with the defining characteristics of a humble man, perseverance and honesty. The reason he’s viewed as the City’s ‘Mayor for Life’ is because he was human, open, vulnerable, and imperfect, but “perfect for D.C.” as his 1992 campaign slogan read. Since the early age of 15, Barry has been fighting as an insurer of equality, he lead a strike against the newspapers in his hometown because black kids were payed less and given fewer bikes than white children to deliver papers. Marion Barry has one of the most inspiring stories of heroism to me. He spent a lifetime of forward movement within a government system designed to often offset the progress of African-Americans. Barry’s perseverance provides hope for a productive, loving, peaceful, and self-sufficient black communities across continents.

Modern society has done a disservice to humanity. Time after time we cast away people who we believe have nothing to offer to American socio-economic life. This way of thinking is extremely backwards. The neighborhood drug dealer often times distributes out of necessity in order to provide for themselves and their families. When opportunities are absent in communities, people create their own – by any means necessary. Barry realized this flaw in thinking could be solved by giving opportunities to people who needed them most, like ex-convicts, drug dealers, and everyday hustlers throughout ‘Chocolate City.’ With the start-up of Pride Inc. Barry’s mission was to instill a sense of pride in people that had it beat out of them or never gained it in the first place. The Program employed over 2,800 black men during its operation. Most importantly, it infused hope and a sense of self-sufficiency in men who desperately needed it. The power of Pride Inc. was visible throughout the District because participants wore uniforms and frequently engaged in parades lead by Barry as thousands followed him drumming on trashcans showcasing their pride as black men. A demographic targeted by police officers and written off by the United States government. The success of Pride Inc. is very crucial to my community today because according to The Washington Times of the 67,000 former inmates living in the District, 46 percent said they were unemployed at the time of the arrest and 77 percent surveyed said they had no help finding employment prior to their release. It seems that the same problems Barry worked to solve in the 1970s still prove to be the Achilles heel of African-American progress today. A restoration of Barry’s Program is vital and would be instrumental in the progress and success of our future today. Instead of service jobs, black people newly released from prison can be taught how to code, technology services, and mechanical trades. This would place them alongside of the most productive members of today’s society and they would also become very profitable citizens.

Further, as a member of the ‘Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee,’ and friend of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Barry practiced non-violence as means of equality for African-Americans. Barry is inspiring because he faced the same level, if not more, of police brutality and harassment as we face today. “Everybody and their mother knows the Police is the number one problem in America,” Barry stated. He was arrested on multiple occasions for disorderly conduct, dissemination of African culture, and threatened breach of peace. Barry was ultimately labeled as a Negro Militant by the police department. I am encouraged because he walked through the fire, dealt with the dangers of racist policing first-hand while maintaining that non-violence was the most efficient method for blacks to practice. As a race war perpetuates due to the escalation of police brutality today, we can look to Barry as an exemplary for the power of peace in our communities.

Another testament to Barry’s leadership was his first mayoral election as he was the unlikely pick in the race. Sterling Tucker controlled the upper-echelon vote while Walter Washington dominated the working-class African-American votes. Although, the proud Dashiki sporting, chicken wing indulging Barry had to refine his style a bit to compete, he was still honest and put the interest of the people before anything else. Needlessly to say, Marion Barry won the election and put the Nation’s Capital in one of the most prosperous periods it had ever seen. The Washington Post said he was, “exactly what the city needs”. During his mayoral term, Barry created the largest black middle-class in America, fostered development, and opened the District government up to blacks, which discriminated against them before. Personally, I find his political views motivating because I have always been hesitant about using the government as an avenue to help African-Americans and so was Barry; he did not trust the system believing it would make him something he did not want to be. However, he changed the dynamics by using his platform not to influence public policy, but to create it. He steered the District in a direction that the people needed, being infinitely fueled by their dire needs. It taught me to never deny any path that can be beneficial to uplifting my community.

In closing, Marion Barry’s life of leadership was a continuation of the likes of Dr. Martin Luther King, Adam Clayton Powell, Booker T. Washington and Malcolm X. Using honesty and perseverance Barry crafted a broken city into a place for black social progress, self-sufficiency, and economic growth.

“My greatest work comes in the community.”
 — Marion Barry

WI Guest Author

This correspondent is a guest contributor to The Washington Informer.

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