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The Dignity of Death… Marion Barry, 78

What is the definition of dignity? According to Websters, it is “the state or quality of being worthy of honor or respect.” Unless a man leaves a legacy that harms others and damages his fellow man, the legacy a man leaves should not just be of his most famous act. It should go beyond that to a level of dignity. Saturday evening a man passed away. A man who’s death that TMZ would title “Crack Mayor Dead at 78.” That man was Marion Barry.

Why that headline? Controversy creates cash, we all get that. A sensationalized headline creates buzz, both good and bad and that equals eyeballs and traffic. However, does a man who served his city and the public for over 43 years deserve that headline upon his death? A man who has done more for his city of Washington, DC than any other mayor before or after him. A man who started as a civil rights activist, then later was voted on to the Board of Education and ascended through the City Council, survived an assassination attempt and not only did indeed get busted doing crack in a hotel room but go on to be re-elected and then continue to serve in various ways deserve to be remembered like that. Sorry for the long-winded recap of Barry’s legacy, but 43 years worth of accomplishments cannot be summed up in a short sentence. Nor can it be summed up in a short and to be quite frank, disrespectful headline.

In a time way before he was ever an elected official, Marion Barry was a civil rights activist, a well educated man who attended 4 universities and a well respected man. In the 60’s he was influential in the Nashville, TN area and later with the NAACP. He fought for the underprivileged in his community when their voices could not be heard. A trait he would continue on when elected to the DC Board of Education in 1971.

“My greatest work comes in the community.” ~ Marion Barry

After 2 years, Barry was elected President of the Board. He led protests against Black Exploitation films such as Super Fly and took issue with the education of lower income areas of the city. Barry didn’t just look out for the African Americans, he looked out for the poor in Washington, DC. He was inspirational as a hero during his time in the City Council after his election in 1974. The Hanafi Muslims attempted to take life when he was shot on March 9, 1977 during the two day Hanafi Muslim hostage stand-off. But even that attempt on his life would not deter him from his drive to see a better Washington, DC.

Labeled a hero, an inspiration and fighter of rights… Marion Barry was elected Mayor of Washington, DC in 1978. Barry would go on to serve three terms in office before the infamous moment that would forever tarnish his legacy. Before that moment in a DC hotel room, where he was victim to a sting and caught doing crack cocaine, Barry’s legacy as Mayor was one of increased efficiency. He cleaned up the bureaucratic mess that was the government in Washington. While he was also the mayor during one of the most deadly periods in DC history, with the outbreak of crack and violence, his legacy as mayor is one of change for the poor and an increase in productivity out of the city’s government.

How loved was Marion Barry in Washington, DC you ask? Enough so that in 1992, only two years after his conviction for possession he was elected to the City Council once again. Two years after that… once again Mayor of Washington, DC. He would go on to serve until 1999. Only declining to continue to serve because he felt his presence was a hindrance for the city he loved and that Congress would not restore full home rule while he was mayor. In 2004, Barry would return to win a seat on the City Council and serve for a few more years.

“Bitch set me up.” ~ Marion Barry

Is that really the lasting legacy of a man that served his public for 43 years and as a civil rights activist even longer than that? One night in a Washington, DC hotel. Barry had his issues. Just as many had hatred and distrust for the man as there were those that loved him. He was polarizing and at times hard to be around. How is a man whose legacy was as important as his imperfections. Which is the more important? More importantly why should we have to choose?

The truth is dignity should not have to choose. The memories of a man’s life should be shed in the proper light, but dignity allows for a few respectful moments between a man’s death and his history. After those moments, then it is history’s right to investigate and determine that man’s worth. Marion Barry is not an easy man to like. He broke rules and laws, he used his office to gain favor for his friends. At what point does that supercede his contributions to his community? That is for history to decide, Washington, DC to decide… not TMZ.

To declare such a headline racist might not be such a stretch. We would like to think in 2014 that such a thing wouldn’t happen in a major media outlet. We’d like to think that this headline is that of a National outlook on a man and his infamy versus an attack on his race. If Rob Ford passed away, would he receive the same? Despite his run-ins with tax issues and other legal troubles, many in the city of Washington, DC will remember Barry differently than he has been portrayed on the National stage. This memory of his life is a lot shorter than it should be, and yet it is much more respectful than the “Thirty Mile Zone’s” short-sighted and offensive headline. Not everyone in DC agreed with or even liked Barry, but we definitely respected his accomplishments and the amount of affection he had for the city.

Mike Ginn
Written By

Husband, father, craft bartender, writer and content creator.

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