The Nine Lives of Marion Barry Illuminates the Role of Race in DC Politics

by Latoya Peterson

Riding back from a family reunion in South Carolina, we were all bored and half-listening to the news when the latest Marion Barry scandal broke. Marion Barry had been accused of stalking his ex-girlfriend. All the adults in the car listened intently to the newscast, then started to laugh uncontrollably.

“That damn Marion Barry,” my dad said, chuckling.

“This is like ‘Bitch Set Me Up!‘ 2.0,” I added.

Even my grandmother got in on the ribbing: “Oh, that Marion…I wonder if I still have that old ‘Bitch Set Me Up’ tee-shirt I bought the first time around.”

Marion Barry is a complicated character to say the least. Many love him, many hate him. Some see him as a crusader for justice, other see him as a rank opportunist. In my family, Marion Barry is supported, but not revered. While there the acknowledgment that Marion Barry did a lot of amazing things for the black community, he’s regarded kind of like an uncle who just can’t get right, no matter how he tries to improve his life.

So, when HBO broadcast the documentary “The Nine Lives of Marion Barry”, I knew I had to tune in.

Checking out some of the reviews of the documentary, I was struck the most by a quick summation in review by The Root:

Traditionally, there have always been three Washingtons: The mainly white Northwest D.C. that controlled the purse strings and the power; the bourgie Gold Coast D.C. of the so-called mulatto elite; and the disenfranchised regular black folks who made up the bulk of the city. In the past decade or so, D.C. has morphed into other incarnations as well: Ethiopian D.C., Salvadoran D.C., South Asian D.C., West African D.C. and, most recently, boutique city D.C., with the $3,000-a-month rents, Barneys Co-op and sustainable seafood restaurants. Those are not Barry’s people.

Now, I would replace “so-called mulatto elite” with a more generic “light skinned elite,” but it’s the same basic principle.

Marion Barry has a hotly contested legacy in the city. There are those who love him and those who abhor him, and both camps of people are shown in the opening montage of the credits. The story follows his re-election campaign to capture a City Council seat in Ward 8.

The film rewinds to Barry’s initial interaction with politics, when he first burst onto the scene in the mid-1960s. Some quotes from those who remember that time:

  • “For a black man [to run] during that period, you really had to have balls to have them.”
  • “White representatives, white power ruled the city.” [A note on the screen explains DC was 70% black in 1965.]
  • “The city was like a plantation…we couldn’t vote.”

Some of the comments revolved around John McMillan, the senator from South Carolina. Over the course of the film, he was called a “racist”; and accused of “us[ing] political power to use enact racism.”

Another activist noted the prevailing attitude in DC at the time:

“Politics is white people’s business. We should never agitate white people

But agitate they did:

The D.C. Board of Commissioners governed the District for almost a century afterwards. By the 1960s, residents’ agitation for home rule led to Congressional bills calling for the abolition of the current system. Home rule activists called it “the last plantation: a fiefdom ruled by Dixiecrat congressmen who operated in autocratic splendor.” (1) D.C. residents finally gained the right to vote in national elections in 1964. A presidentially-appointed mayor and city council replaced the Commissioners in 1967; a popularly elected school board followed a year later. In 1971 D.C. won representation in Congress, albeit nonvoting. “Full” home rule, however, took until 1975, and was won only after bitter clashes with members of Congress. Five times between 1955 and 1965, Representative John McMillan (D-South Carolina and head of the House District Committee) killed bills granting voting rights to D.C. residents. McMillan asserted, “No one seems to object to the work performed by this committee, except the public.” (2) To gain home rule, activists had to go to South Carolina and campaign for the defeat of McMillan in the race for his Congressional seat in 1972.

Enter Marion Barry, who was labeled both “arrogant” and a “negro militant” (the latter term was put on one if his mugshots.)

But one of the lesser known parts of Barry’s past was despite his radicalism had been trained to be non-violent, and served as a counter to the pro-violence youth. Jesse Jackson claimed him as “one of us,” meaning a key person in Civil Rights at that time.

Marion Barry interacted the hustlers, convicts, drug dealers, and made it possible for them to get a job.

He is on record as saying :”We knew we had to instill a sense of pride in them [...] because society doesn’t allow you to have pride.” His program (also called PRIDE) to take people from the street corners to work began to get results.

Barry was appointed first to the city council, and then won the election for mayor. (Interestingly enough, during his second term as mayor, Barry was shot during a seige – the clip in the film shows him making statements from the gurney as he is being wheeled away from the scene.)

However, his tenure was often commented upon by those who felt Barry wasn’t polished enough to be mayor.

  • “His hair wasn’t straight enough, his skin wasn’t light enough.”
  • “Marion would walk around with a chicken leg while he talked.”

Barry was pursuing a PHD in chemistry before he decided to join the struggle for civil rights. While much is often made about stupid things Marion Barry said while in office, and how stupid Barry was purported to be, many of these things simply aren’t true. However, even before Marion Barry’s own personal downfall with drugs and womanizing, there were those who felt he was unsuitable in a government role.

After showing how Barry was sworn in as mayor by Thurgood Marshall in January 1979, the film jumps ahead to 2004, explaining that more than 25 years after the first election, Barry campaigns again – this time, to represent Ward 8.

As usual, views on Barry are mixed.

Sandra Seegers, Barry’s opponent for Ward 8, goes on record saying: “He has a charisma, he uses his good for evil.”

[ Random aside: Catch the clip where Seeger is talking smack about Barry and then goes "Oh, white people! On the street! Did you see 'em?" Yes, it's like that in some places in DC.]

Others fondly reminisce on what Barry brought to the city the first time around. Someone registered to vote just because he was running.
Others recall how Barry balanced the budget, created jobs, and helped Washington become the largest area for the black middle class, finally noting:

“The government became open for black people.”

At this point, the film shifts to more of Barry’s personal life. He was a big flirt and over time, was often dogged with allegations about mixing womanizing and drug use.

In 1982, Karen Johnson was accused of providing Barry with cocaine and was rumored to be his lover. In response to the allegations, Barry snaps “Where’d you get that shit from?”

In 1988, Washington was in the grips of the crack epidemic. Barry reflected the issues with his city. His alcohol problem began to get out of control and there were also rumors of cocaine and strippers following him. This part of the documentary focuses on the toll on his first wife, Effie, and what she witnessed in the papers while still being married to Barry.

Eventually, Barry cops to using cocaine in the documentary, along with Valium. The filmmakers cut to a scene that shows him to speaking to children while he was high. The speech was against drug usem and the scene is eerily reminiscent of Whitney Houston’s “Crack is Wack” pronouncement.

In 1990, Marion Barry was arrested with crack cocaine as part of an undercover sting. They show the video. They show the circumstances. And of course, they hit the classic line that Barry is most known for. In the hotel, with Rashida Moore (who, on video, actively encourages him to hit the pipe after he initially demurs), Barry seems to be pissed and muttering to himself. He finally utters, “bitch set me up!” as he is being led away, and there was the quote on tee-shirts being sold on carts near the capital.

Interestingly enough, here’s where the focus on racial divides bubbles over to the surface. The reaction to Barry’s problem largely divided down racial lines, with whites who had been increasingly discontent under Barry campaigning to get him out and with blacks, particularly those who remembered what Barry had done for the residents. (Indeed, when I talk to lifelong DC residents now, almost everyone I speak to over the age of 25 has a memory of a personal favor done by Marion Barry.)

Congress appoints a control board, wresting control back from the city after Barry’s release. Newt Gingrich led this effort and it was successful.

Still, Barry pressed on. He currently serves on the City Council, representing Ward 8 as he has since 2004.

And still, to this day, his legacy is as hotly contested as it was when he began.