Former D.C. mayor Marion Barry passes away

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By USA Today

Marion Barry Jr., a fiery civil rights activist who rose to prominence as a mayor of Washington, D.C., only to fall in disgrace when he was arrested for smoking crack cocaine, died early Sunday morning. He was 78 years old.

His death was announced in a statement released by the family.

No cause of death was given, but Barry had been in and out of the hospital for the last year. He had a history of health problems that included a battle with prostate cancer in the 1990s, a kidney transplant in 2009 and a decades-long struggle with diabetes. He’d even survived a bullet wound in a City Hall shootout in 1978.

His spokeswoman, LaToya Foster, said he collapsed outside his home, the Associated Press reported.

The proclaimed “mayor for life” had been a popular leader and one of D.C.’s most influential politicians for almost 50 years. He had a colorful and controversial life that included drug use, failure to pay his federal income taxes and getting shot in the heart in a hostage standoff.

In a statement released early Sunday morning, District of Columbia Mayor Vincent Gray expressed his “deep sadness” after learning of Barry’s passing.

“Marion was not just a colleague but also was a friend with whom I shared many fond moments about governing the city,” he said. “He loved the District of Columbia and so many Washingtonians loved him.”

Mayor-elect Muriel Bowser said in a statement: “Mayor Marion Barry gave a voice to those who need it most and lived his life in service to others. “I — along with all Washingtonians — am shocked and deeply saddened by his passing.”

Barry, already celebrated as the first civil rights-era leader to head a major American city, became infamous in 1990 after his arrest on charges of possession of cocaine at a downtown D.C. hotel. He was arrested for smoking crack cocaine in a room at the Vista International Hotel with a female friend of the mayor, who worked as an informant for the FBI and D.C. police.

The arrest was caught on video and audio tape in one of the first political sting episodes of its kind.

Barry was heard on the tape saying, “B**** set me up,” a phrase that became the well-worn punch line for late-night comedians. He served six months in federal prison.

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Yet despite his controversies, or because of them, he was an icon to the city’s poor and disenfranchised black community who saw him as a champion of their rights. He rose from rabble-rousing civil rights activist to prominent symbol of the district’s home rule when he was elected as the district’s second mayor.

When he ran for mayor again in 1994, he beat his opponent by more than 10 percentage points. It earned him his nickname “Mayor for Life.”

Barry was born in 1936 into an extremely poor family who hailed from the cotton fields of a small town called Itta Benna on the Mississippi Delta. He was one of 10 children. He was a shy boy who studied chemistry in college.

Barry first went to D.C. in 1965 and began his decades-long work of battling segregation and racial discrimination that earned him the love and respect of the district’s poor.

He went to work in D.C. to head the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and raise funds for the organization.

He left the organization in 1967 and joined direct action protests including a boycott to protest increases in bus fares that would hurt the poor. He fought for home rule for D.C., which he said at the time was about liberating the nation’s predominantly black capital from “political slavery.” He was a grass-roots organizer, running job-training programs and empowering residents in D.C.’s poorest and most dangerous neighborhoods.

After the 1968 riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Barry advocated the end of white dominance of businesses in inner-city black neighborhoods.

“White people should be allowed to come back only if the majority of the ownership is in the hands of blacks,” Barry said then. “That is when they should come back and give their experience and their expertise — and then they should leave.”

He was considered an anti-establishment activist who eschewed the traditional black middle class power brokers in the district. Until, that is, he became the establishment. He did it by building a power based from the hardscrabble neighborhood of Anacostia on the eastern side of the district.

Barry joined city politics in 1971, when he was elected to the school board. He then ran for and joined the city council in 1974. There, he pushed a law that required all district contracts to include 35% participation for minority-owned businesses.

His legend as a tough fighter grew in 1977 when he was shot in the heart while trying to defend the District Building from radical Black Muslim terrorists, who had taken over the building in a two-day hostage crisis.

The following year, he became the second mayor elected in D.C., serving three terms until 1990.

He became a staunch champion for liberal causes, such as gay rights and the decriminalization of marijuana.

During the early years of his administration, much of the black middle class establishment did not vote for him, fearing he was a tool for liberal young and wealthy whites, who made up a significant portion of his political base.

By 1984, he had risen to such prominence that he gave the presidential nomination speech for Jesse Jackson at the Democratic convention.

Yet rumors about his drug use swirled for years, rumors that were confirmed as truth after his 1990 arrest.

But he didn’t stay away from politics for long. Two months after being released from federal prison in June 1992, he ran for the city council seat for Ward 8, home to one of D.C.’s poorest and most disenfranchised communities.

He won. Barry was back.

Then in 1994 he won a landslide victory that returned him to the mayor’s office. It was his fourth term in office.

He held public office in the district ever since.

He was arrested again in 2002 for possession of marijuana and pot, but mounted another comeback in 2004 to run for and win a city council spot in Ward 8.

His later years were full of accusations and controversies, marking a downward slide for the once well-respected activist who championed the poor.

He was censured by the city council in 2010 because of allegations of public corruption, was ordered in court to pay damages to a woman who accused him of exposing himself to her in an airport bathroom and was sanctioned for accepting illegal gifts from city contractors.

Earlier this year, he published a new autobiography, Mayor for Life: The Incredible Story of Marion Barry, Jr., in which he tries to refashion his legacy and denies many of the controversies that surrounded him.

“My life in politics took a heavy toll on me personally, and it took a toll on my family,” he wrote in the book. “And if I had any regrets, I would probably think about the pain that my life decisions caused every one of them.”

Barry is survived by his fourth wife, Cora Masters, and his son, Marion Christopher Barry.

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