Unveiling Of Marion Barry Statue Reignites Debate About The Legacy of D.C.’s ‘Mayor For Life’


Kathy Goldgeir

During his life, former D.C. Mayor Marion Barry was beloved, admired, disgraced, jailed — and then elected to two more terms in office. Over his several decades as mayor and D.C. Council member, the civil rights pioneer and local politician who became known as the “Mayor for Life” was perhaps the District’s most controversial public figure.

Now an 8-foot bronze statue of Barry, who died in 2014, will greet visitors to the Wilson Building, D.C.’s city hall. The statue will be unveiled March 3.

The statue’s debut is once again stirring up some old feelings about the long-serving politician.

D.C. Council member Trayon White represents Ward 8 on the D.C. Council, as Barry did after he left the mayor’s office. White said on WAMU’s Kojo Nnamdi Show that Barry touched people in a way that was different from most politicians.

“He had that civil rights swag,” White said. “He wore the dashikis, he was walking through the streets and people was able to feel him and he gave them a lot of opportunities.”

From his youth summer jobs program to his support of minority-owned businesses, generations of D.C. residents believe he helped them and the city move forward.

White credits Barry with being “an integral part in getting D.C. where it is today.”

But Barry was sent to prison for six months for cocaine possession. And by the time he left the mayor’s office in 1999, a control board had taken over management of virtually all city agencies because of a financial crisis.

In 2010, Nnamdi himself suggested in an op ed that Barry had been a disgraced mayor. The WAMU host invited Barry to come on The Politics Hour radio program to respond, which Barry did.

Barry said on the program, “Not even white people in this town think I’ve been disgraced. I’ve done some things personally that were not good. I’ve been entrapped by the federal government, etc., etc.” But Barry said that didn’t diminish his record. “I think you ought to not deprecate the good service that I have done,” he said.

Disgraced or not, Barry will be honored with a larger-than-life statue, wearing a suit and his favorite snakeskin shoes. His right arm is in the air, waving.

The statue’s prominent placement on Pennsylvania Avenue is remarkable, according to Anacostia Coordinating Council executive director Philip Pannell. Pannell said on the Kojo Show this week that “the nation’s avenue” has very little real estate that can be claimed by and for African Americans. “I think there’s a certain symbolic sweetness,” Pannell said, “that on Pennsylvania Avenue, particularly for major parades such as the inaugural parade, there will be Marion Barry in bronze, waving to the passersby.”


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