Citizens and civic leaders turn out to remember former mayor Marion Barry

Citizens and civic leaders turn out to remember former mayor Marion Barry

By Mike DeBonis and Paul Schwartzman December 4 at 3:14 PM

The remains of Marion Barry lay at city hall Thursday, where civic leaders, veterans of the civil rights movement and ordinary citizens honored the former mayor who arrived in the District nearly 40 years ago as a little-known activist and became its most celebrated politician.

After a royal blue hearse arrived at 8:30 a.m., a police honor guard carried Barry’s casket up the steps to the entrance of the John A. Wilson Building, where Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) and D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) waited.

The casket passed a line of leaders who included Mayor-elect Muriel E. Bowser (D), the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, past and present members of the D.C. Council, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) and former mayors Sharon Pratt, Anthony A. Williams and Adrian M. Fenty.

Inside the Wilson Building’s grand marble lobby, Barry’s widow, Cora Masters Barry, and his son, Christopher, sat facing his closed casket, which was covered with a kente cloth and dozens of roses.

Mendelson called it a “sad day” for the District government, of which Barry was a reigning figure for nearly five decades.

Three days of memorial events have begun for longtime D.C. mayor Marion Barry. His casket arrived Thursday morning at the Wilson Building, where the public is paying their respects. (Alice Li/The Washington Post)

“It is fitting that we are here to bring Mr. Barry to city hall one last time,” Mendelson said.

Barry, 78, the council member from Ward 8 and former four-term mayor, died Nov. 23 after years of declining health.

His casket was to remain at city hall for public viewing until Friday morning, part of a three-day commemoration that will end Saturday with a memorial at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center.

Barry’s tenure was a spectrum of soaring political triumphs and embarrassing personal lows relating to his battles with drug and alcohol abuse. As mourners filed by his casket, they said they were mindful of the former mayor’s complexities.

Darryl Washington, 49, a graphic designer, wore a self-designed, silver-on-black T-shirt that read “Marion Barry: Mayor for Life.”

Like many of the mourners, Washington got a summer job from a Barry program, and he said the former mayor made a big impression later in Washington’s life when he struggled with drugs.

“A lot of his experiences, I’ve experienced myself,” Washington said. “Whatever demons he had, he still continued to press.

“Now I’ve been fortunate enough to start my own business,” Washington continued. “There have been bumps and bruises, but I kept on pushing. He had his struggles, but he didn’t lose his primary purpose, which was to help somebody.”

The mourners included Reps. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) and John Lewis (D-Ga.), who knew Barry from their days leading the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which organized civil rights actions in the South during the 1960s. Representatives from the embassies of Zimbabwe and South Africa, nations Barry visited as mayor, paid their respects.

Jackson, who will eulogize Barry on Saturday, called him a “freedom fighter” who was among those “who put their lives on the line to integrate this country.”

“He was a long-distance runner,” Jackson said. “He came to Washington and tore down walls in Washington.”

Williams described his fellow former mayor as a “Napoleonic figure” who “had his detractors, but he had his admirers.”

“He did many great things,” Williams said. “He had his flaws; he had his failings. But he left an indelible impact on the city.”

The Rev. Jim Dickerson, executive director of affordable housing developer Manna, recalled hosting one of Barry’s last public events: a ribbon-cutting for a 24-unit apartment complex in Anacostia built with city subsidies and affordable to people with incomes of $30,000 or less.

“He started all of the programs, basically, that we continue to build on,” Dickerson said. “His commitment to that never went away, even with his personal problems.”

An hour before Barry’s casket was to arrive, a handful of people had gathered outside the Wilson Building, waiting to pay their respects.

Bernard Barker, a 53-year-old laborer from Anacostia, was first in line. He recalled meeting Barry as a schoolboy in the early 1970s when Barry was leading Pride Inc., the group he co-founded that helped put poor African American children to work.

“Marion Barry was a very good man,” Barker said. “The people of D.C., we was behind Marion Barry. If he would have run for mayor again, I think he would have won it again.”

On the Wilson Building steps, longtime Logan Circle activist John Fanning wore a button from Barry’s 1986 mayoral campaign. “Making a great city even greater,” it said.

“He reminded me of a prize fighter,” Fanning said. “He kept getting knocked down and getting back up.”

Barry’s family planned the three days of memorial events in conjunction with city officials and based on the former mayor’s wishes, which he detailed months before his death.

On Friday, Barry’s funeral motorcade is scheduled to leave the Wilson Building at 9:30 a.m. and go to the Temple of Praise, on the city’s southeast border, for a public viewing and memorial. The church is in Ward 8, which Barry represented on the council for 12 years.

The motorcade will travel through Wards 6 and 8, not through all eight of the city’s wards as originally discussed.

A bigger farewell is scheduled for Saturday at the Convention Center, which could accommodate as many as 14,000 people, said Greg O’Dell, the center’s chief executive.

The District government is bearing most of the cost of Barry’s farewell, but private fundraising is underway to supplement the public spending.

By Thursday, T-shirt vendors peddling “Mayor for Life” garb had set up in front of the Wilson Building as well as on street corners leading from Metro Center.

Oliver W. Johnson Jr. brought his own creation: a painting of Barry, arm in the air, standing in front of the Capitol with another District icon, musician Chuck Brown, who died two years ago.

The piece was not for sale, Johnson said.

“There’s a void there, but the legacy they created was tremendous,” Johnson, 61, said. “They engraved their mark on the face of the city.”

Aaron C. Davis, Hamil R. Harris and Dana Hedgpeth contributed to this report.

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