WASHINGTON — Local and national political leaders, prominent clergy and ordinary Washingtonians who got their first jobs as a result of Marion Barry's programs were among the thousands who gathered Saturday to say goodbye to the man dubbed "Mayor for Life."
Barry died Nov. 23 at age 78. He served four terms as mayor and leaves a legacy as the most famous, the most beloved and the most divisive local leader in four decades of District of Columbia self-rule.
He was credited with expanding economic opportunity for the city's black majority, and helping to revitalize downtown Washington. He also had well-documented personal struggles, culminating in a 1990 arrest for smoking crack cocaine. He served six months in prison but was later elected to his fourth term for a remarkable comeback.
"Marion Barry was an icon. He was the consummate politician. He was an elder statesman. He was a fierce fighter for the dispossessed," said the Rev. Willie Wilson, a southeast Washington pastor and one of several clergy who ministered to Barry over the years.
More than two dozen people spoke at the 4 ½-hour service at the Washington Convention Center. The convention hall had seating for roughly 15,000 people, but it never appeared more than half full. A burial service at Congressional Cemetery was private.
Here's how people remembered Barry on Saturday:
In his eulogy, the Rev. Jesse Jackson called Barry, who came to Washington as the first chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, a "freedom fighter" who joins the pantheon of civil rights leaders who died before him. "Marion was one of the architects of the new South and the new America," Jackson said. "Marion Barry emancipated Washington."
Barry's widow, Cora Masters Barry, said her husband's common touch prevented him from completing ordinary household errands. "I stopped letting him go to the gas station, because he would spend all his money, not on gas but on people asking him for money," Masters Barry said. "I stopped letting him go to the grocery store, because we couldn't get out of the grocery store."
Mayor Vincent Gray, a longtime friend and ally, said Barry stood up for people with intellectual disabilities long before it was politically popular to do so. Gray, who directed an organization for the intellectually disabled, recalled how Barry dealt with a wealthy resident who didn't want a group home in his neighborhood. "Mayor Barry said, and I quote, 'You really don't want any answers, do you? If you want to talk about how we will make this work, I will stay with you all night. Otherwise, I have nothing else to say to you.' That was vintage Barry," Gray said.
The Rev. Louis Farrakhan, the head of the Nation of Islam who was in Washington to support Barry during his trial on drug charges, said he was asked by a reporter at the time what he thought of a man who broke his marital vows and used drugs. "I said, 'Who are you talking about, John Fitzgerald Kennedy?' That ended the press conference," Farrakhan said to a raucous ovation.
Farrakhan credited Barry with the success of the Million Man March on the National Mall, which he organized and led in 1995. "The Million Man March could never have happened in any other city at any other time than in Washington, D.C. at the time of Marion Barry," Farrakhan said.
Barry's only son, Christopher Barry, thanked his father for teaching him life lessons, including a formative trip to Barry's native Mississippi when he was 13. He said Barry wasn't a conventional father, but he always felt the love Barry had for his constituents. "I didn't always feel like he had the time to spend with me as a father," Christopher Barry said. "It was other people that embraced me. I never felt his absence because I always felt his love through others."
Billionaire real estate developer R. Donahue Peebles said he owes all his success to Barry, who appointed him to a city board at 24 and helped him start his business. "Marion Barry taught me to dream big. Marion Barry gave me the opportunity to make those dreams come true," Peebles said. "Marion Barry made Washington, D.C., the mecca of African-American entrepreneurship. Marion Barry created the black middle class in Washington, D.C."
Charles Wilson, 54, was one of many wearing a T-shirt printed with Barry photos. A native Washingtonian, Wilson got his first job at 13 with the city's parks and recreation department through Barry's summer youth employment program. "He was our father. He gave us jobs. He's done a lot for the city. Whatever I have belongs to him — my house, my car, my job with D.C. government," Wilson said.
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