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The Evidence of Things Not Seen

Shantella Y. Sherman | 6/18/2014, 3 p.m.
Shantella Y. Sherman

It's difficult for people who do not know Marion Barry's long and storied legacy of racial and social activism in the District to celebrate him for any reason. It is not uncommon, in fact, to have new supplants arbitrarily reduce Barry to a mumbling, aged relic of progress, whose continued presence in politics is of no more value than his choppy news soundbytes. It would seem then, hardly beneficial to acknowledge Barry beyond his occasional offending comments and unpopular social positions.

So why does Barry continue to be as dangerous to some as he is popular to others?

While his heart tends to be in the right place, Barry's methods have never been orthodox. Consequently, Barry has the ability to rally the hopeless, raise the stakes, and all but raise the dead. For instance, as a leader of the Free D.C. Movement, Barry founded a jobs program, Pride Inc. for unemployed Black men who otherwise would have fallen into an almost predictable cycle of unemployment, crime, and prison. Barry spoke truth to power – loudly, defiantly, and unabashedly. After being shot when Hanafi Muslims took over the District Building in 1977, Barry's reputation as a fearless, angry, and formidable leader, took root.

In addition to ending generations of marginalized economic advancement undergirded by the popular belief that D.C. remained populated by former slaves and federal government nannies, Barry offered many Blacks the ability to exercise full citizenship through financial security, homeownership, and access to decent education. Anyone fourteen years old and older had access to summer employment and a livable wage. In addition to building financial responsibility, Barry endeavored to build character and civic responsibility among the young workers.

Imagine inspiring young people that D.C. has ignored, forgotten, or paternalistically filed into a permanent underclass to straighten their posture, demand full access, and strengthen their own communities. Imagine watching a new generation of Marion Barrys shake off the stereotypes, challenge the system from its base, and with solid purpose redefine how politicians, corporations, and the federal government interact with the city.

Barry's legacy also included improving the city's financial buoyancy by ushering the District into the bond market with the highest credit rating possible, allowing the city to borrow money on the open bond market, independent of the U.S. Treasury.

The danger of a Marion Barry is yanking back the Wizard's curtain to find no smoke or mirrors, no rabbits up sleeves, no magic elixirs or dust from the Crossroads. Instead, one finds is a battle-weary Black man from Mississippi who got fed up with the system and kicked a-to change things for himself and the people around him. No person is all one thing. While the women, substance abuse, and grainy black and white surveillance footage from his 1990 arrest and the infamous “the b---set me up” soundbite have come to define his fifty-year career for some; it was a mere unfortunate blip on the screen of an otherwise brilliant career to others. It's not personal – necessarily, the revisionist history that creeps about labeling wise men fools and defining them by their Achilles' heel. Barry is among many of its victims, and even at 78, he can handle it.

The danger of Marion Barry has nothing to do with his current frailty, some of the seemingly foolish things he utters, or his past indiscretions; and everything to do with those who have named him Mayor for Life in spite of it.

The Washington Informer partnered with students at The Richard Wright Public Charter School for Journalism and Media Arts in Southeast to discuss Barry's philosophies, his early civil rights mission, his continued commitment to the disenfranchised of the city, and the major economic strides he made for the District. The goal was to introduce Barry's political and social activism to students who would otherwise see only what they're told to see. A few of the essays from the Richard Wright Public Charter School for Journalism and Media Arts students follow.

Dr. Shantella Y. Sherman

Editor, Special Sections