As four-time mayor of Washington, D.C., Marion Barry helped to create a city that helped the poor and disadvantaged. His programs created jobs for people out of work (many got their first jobs through his programs); allocated city contracts specifically for minorities (in 1980, 35 percent of city contracts were awarded to minority-owned firms); obtained summer jobs for teens and opened centers for senior citizens. He was an important part of the civil rights movement to give African-Americans equal access to social and economic security. However, he harmed himself and his supporters with his lawless behavior.
Early Life and Leadership Potential
Barry was born in Itta Bena, Mississippi on March 6, 1936. His father was a poor sharecropper who died when Marion was only four years old. His mother moved to Memphis, remarried and raised nine children. In 1958, he was graduated from Le Moyne College and in 1960 he received a master’s degree in chemistry from Fisk University. He then became a leader in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), serving as its first national chairman. He was arrested several times for participating in the Nashville sit-ins and other Civil Rights Movement events. In 1965, he moved to Washington, D.C. to open a local chapter of SNCC, and soon afterwards led street demonstrations to boycott and protest an increase in bus fare from 20 to 25 cents.
In 1967, he was one of the founders of Pride, Inc., to help black men find work. They employed hundreds of teenagers to clean garbage-covered streets and alleys. Just after the 1968 Washington, D.C. riots, he helped organize a program to give free food to the poor black residents whose homes had been damaged by the rioting. In 1972 was elected to the D.C. School Board and in 1974 was elected to the City Council.
The People’s Mayor
In 1978 he was elected mayor and started a summer jobs program for every school-age resident. However, unemployment and crime rates rose at that time, largely because a budget cut caused 1500 police layoffs. The city was in debt for $285 million.
He was adored by the poor people of D.C. Almost all people who lived east of the Anacostia River loved him because he spent hours talking to people in the distressed neighborhoods. He helped senior citizens shop, played basketball with the kids, attended as many civic association meetings as was possible, and spoke at just about every black church in Washington. This allowed him to raise more than a million dollars for his second campaign for mayor.
In his second term as mayor of D.C., he had created so many new jobs that in 1986 nobody in the administration knew exactly how many employees it had. The press was reporting stories about his many sexual exploits, and his alcohol and drug abuse. His associates, Ivanhoe Donaldson and Alphonse G. Hill, were indicted for “financial malfeasances.” In January 1987, when a winter blizzard paralyzed the city and snow crews were unavailable to clear the streets, the mayor was in Pasadena watching Super Bowl XXI. During his first term as mayor, he had raised the long-term debt to more than $100 million and in 1995 while the city was near bankruptcy, he kept on adding jobs. A financial control board appointed by Congress eliminated more than 10,000 old and new jobs.
He was subsequently elected mayor two more times and was also elected to several other political posts. On September 14, 2004, in spite of being limited by memory lapses, he won 95 percent of the vote in the general election to represent Ward 8 in the D.C. Council.
His Lawless Behavior
* Drugs. He was addicted to alcohol and cocaine. In 1990 he served six months in a federal prison for cocaine use. At an IRS hearing for failing to pay taxes in 2005, he failed mandatory drug tests for cocaine and marijuana.
*Scandal: He awarded a city contract to a former girlfriend and arranged for D.C. grant money to go to nonprofit organizations controlled by people close to him. He arranged for $1 million grant for Ward 8 nonprofit organizations that appeared to be run by people who worked for him or his campaigns. He was fined by the city’s ethics commission $13,600 for accepting $6,800 in gifts from two city contractors.
*Indecent behavior: In 2002 he lost a civil case and had to pay $35,000 to a woman who accused him of exposing himself in an airport bathroom.
*Failure to pay taxes: In 2006, he was sentenced to three years’ probation after being found guilty of failing to file tax returns from 1999 to 2004.
*Traffic tickets: In 2014, he had a traffic accident and was found to have had $2,800 in unpaid tickets for speeding and parking violations since 2012.
His Health Problems
His lifestyle habits were so harmful that it is amazing that he lived to be 78. He may have had very good genes since his mother lived to age 92. He was a diabetic who smoked, drank excess alcohol, was addicted to various drugs, loved sweet desserts and drank lots of sugared drinks. He did not like vegetables, did not exercise, was overweight and had a large belly. He had high blood pressure, diabetes, heart trouble, and kidney failure. Recent research shows that his prostate cancer also could have been caused by his unhealthful diet and diabetes (Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev, Sept 23, 2014;23(10);1-12). In 2009, he had a kidney transplant and had to be put on drugs to suppress his immunity to prevent him from rejecting the donor kidney. These immune-suppressant drugs caused him to suffer numerous and repeated blood infections that required hospitalizations. His promiscuous behavior also could have caused these infections
During his fourth term as mayor of the nation’s capitol, he had many signs of the damage that his lifestyle did to his health. He had wide-open glassy eyes and slurred speech. He would often arrive at his office at lunch time and then fall asleep at his desk. He had to schedule all his appointments in the afternoon. He often couldn’t remember the names of people who were old friends and couldn’t recognize new acquaintances. His friends tried to save him from his repeated memory lapses. They felt that they could remove him from public office by creating an endowed professorship for him at the University of the District of Columbia.
Lifestyle Changes Can Prevent Disease
His memory lapses, high blood pressure, diabetes, heart trouble, kidney failure, and even his prostate cancer were caused by or worsened by his unhealthful lifestyle. The same lifestyle factors that cause any one of these conditions could also cause and worsen the others. I would have advised him to:
• Avoid recreational drugs as they increase risk for dementia,
• Avoid red meat, fried foods, sugar-added foods and sugared drinks,
• Avoid smoking and second-hand smoke,
• Restrict alcohol.
• A big belly means you are likely to be diabetic; get tested and treated,
• Grow muscle and lose fat,
• Exercise, and
• Get blood levels of hydroxy vitamin D above 75 nmol/L.
March 6, 1936 – November 23, 2014