Ads are being blocked

For us to continue writing great stories, we need to display ads.

Un-block Learn more
Back

Whitelist

Please select the extension that is blocking ads.

Ad Block Plus Ghostery uBlock Other Blockers
Back

Please follow the steps below

The Best Reads on Marion Barry, D.C.'s Mayor for Life

With his death early this morning, the District is mourning a complicated man.

Marion Barry at a press conference in 2009. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

Marion Barry, the man known as the Mayor for Life in Washington, D.C., the city that he served for decades, died early this morning. The District is mourning a complicated man who steered the city through periods of devastation and renewal.

Many people who don't live in D.C. can't wrap their heads around Barry's prominent place in city politics even after his administration crashed in an FBI sting for drug abuse in 1990. TMZ dismissed Barry with a headline that reads "Crack Mayor Dead": That's all that many people know about the man.

But a petition asking TMZ to change its offensive headline has garnered nearly 9,000 signatures as of this writing. Here's a list of required reading about Barry's rise, his downfall, and his return that helps to explain why.  

Barry signs a book of condolences for Civil Rights activist Dorothy Height. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

The Washington Post's Mike DeBonis explains Barry's legacy through a program that has changed lives for thousands in D.C.: the Summer Youth Employment Program. Since 1979, the city has helped local employers give jobs to District youths every summer, jobs that otherwise wouldn't exist. DeBonis is tracking down the many people who got their starts from Barry's summer jobs program, which continues today—people who include Prince George's County Executive Rushern L. Baker III and many, many others.

Then-Mayor Barry meets with union representatives in 1990. (Charles Tasnadi/AP)

The very best chronicle of Barry's D.C. is Dream City, a book by longtime District reporters Tom Sherwood and Harry Jaffe. The 1994 book follows Barry's rise in the Civil Rights movement through his eventual fall; the writers present Barry's life as a lens for understanding the city itself. The Washington City Paper's Will Sommer wrote an oral history of Dream City for the book's 20th anniversary this year, and it's the next-best thing to reading Dream City itself. Or read the excerpts that Adam Serwer is tweeting from Dream City, and see if you're not hooked.

Perhaps no other local D.C. figure has earned as many column inches and news coverage as Barry. The Washington City Paper has compiled a completist reader of its articles on Barry dating back to 1993 (that's probably as far as the online archives go). Some of these are crucial stories. Start with a 1993 story by David Plotz on Barry's return from public disgrace as the Council member for Ward 8, a post he held from from 1993 to 1995 and once again from 2005 to 2014. (Read also the story that Plotz posted on Slate today.)

Jack Schafer and other former Loose Lips political correspondents for the Washington City Paper are all writing essays about Barry's life and legacy. So is at least one Council member. (UPDATE: Here's Schafer's look at Barry's charisma. It's all true: I've seen it firsthand.)

Mayor Barry talks with Hillary Rodham Clinton at a meeting of the Youth Leadership Conference in Washington, D.C., in 1997. (Brian K. Diggs/AP)
Mayor Barry with then–House Speaker Newt Gingrich and D.C.'s House Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton in 1995. (Charles Tasnadi/AP)

In another remembrance for the Washington City Paper, Aaron Wiener examines Barry's mayoral legacy through the many developments he helped to land for the city, focusing especially on one: the Frank D. Reeves Municipal Center. That building helped to usher the revitalization of D.C.'s U Street corridor, which had suffered vacancy and neglect following the riots. Wiener explains what placing the government building at 14th and U streets NW did for the city, and what Barry thought about plans today to replace it.

Although he made his career in D.C., Barry got his start as a student activist in Nashville. The Tennessean's Jamie McGee traces Barry's Volunteer State's roots, starting with his student days at Fisk University, where he and other Civil Rights leaders built the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which Barry served as its first national chairman. The story notes that he pursued a doctorate degree at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.

Rev. Jesse Jackson and Mayor Barry in TK. (Ted Gartland/AP)

It's not just the official press gaggle who followed Barry's life closely. Back in 2008, Ian Svenonius, a prominent figure in the District's music scene, wrote a great essay about how the orchestrated, official sting that brought down Barry reflected and affected underground culture in D.C. Svenonius's Vice essay is the best story about Barry that has nothing and everything to do with his life as a politician.

Travis Morrison, a member of The Dismemberment Plan, one of D.C.'s favorite rock groups, offered some succinct words on Facebook:

So many feelings and so few words about Marion Barry dying. Summer jobs, crack, having the federal government hassle him professionally and personally, witty swag, murder rate, pointless anti gay rhetoric in 21st century campaigns for city council, a real role in civil rights... RIP, mostly because that dude must have been TIRED.

And in one 140-character tweet after another, Canadian cultural historian Jeet Heer says everything that needs to be said about the misguided comparison between former Barry and Toronto Mayor Rob Ford.

The notorious FBI videotape that brought down Barry. (Barry Thumma/AP)

My own humble contribution to Barry lore is a story about a portrait that he favored: a painting of Barry, mounted on horseback and riding through the cosmos. The portrait hangs with pride of place in his Ward 8 Council office. I tracked down and spoke to the painter about his work and Barry's portrait.

BuzzFeed's Shani O. Hilton and Jim Dalrymple II are updating a running story about his life and death. Take a look at more stories from Bloomberg's David Weigel and the Post's Courtland Milloy. For many reporters in D.C., this is a day for looking back through the archives. For residents, it's a day for remembering.

UPDATE (11/24): Two more stories popped up after this roundup went live, but you need to read these two for a fuller understanding of the mayor. These two stories are by D.C. natives. Adam Serwer's obituary for BuzzFeed reads the black racial anxieties and politics that framed Barry's rise (and his fall). Key quote: "Barry didn’t bring corruption to D.C. He changed who benefited from it."

In the Post, Clinton Yates asks what D.C. can do to commemorate the man. Erect a statue? Dedicate a park? Rename a school? None of those options seems entirely suitable. I like his suggestion: Let's name the next Reeves Center–type building after him.

UPDATE (11/25 5:11 P.M.) Finally, one that I don't know how I missed: Jonetta Rose Barras's eulogy for the Post, which looks at the impact of his life and death on Ward 8.

Barry in 2009. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

About the Author

  • Kriston Capps
    Kriston Capps is a staff writer at CityLab. More

    Kriston Capps is a staff writer at CityLab, where he writes about housing, art and design. Previously, he was a senior editor at Architect magazine.