Sam Smith, 2006 – Marion Barry and I split back in the 1980s. I can’t remember the exact issue, but it was one time too many that Marion had promised one thing and then done another.
I first met Marion in 1966. We were both in our 20s and he was looking for a white guy who would handle the press. He had just organized the largest local protest movement in the city’s history – a bus boycott – and I had participated and written about it. The typical twenty something doesn’t get over 100,000 people to stop doing something for a day. I gladly took on the assignment.
We hit it off and remained allies even after the day Stokley Carmichael walked into SNCC headquarters and said that we whites were no longer welcomed in the civil rights movement. Barry would later describe me as one of the first whites who would have anything to do with him. I backed him when he ran for school board and in his first two mayoral bids. And in those days, I have to say, he got pretty good press.
But even by the time of the second run for mayor I was feeling queasy. A couple of friends and I held a fundraiser for Marion but our wives would have nothing to do with it. I introduced him by listing the reasons why people might be ambivalent about Barry and then added, “On the other hand. . .” Marion pointedly wiped his brow.
I was already becoming aware of Marion’s addiction to that most dangerous, if legal, drug called power. Later, I would be listening to a talk show discussing a book about cocaine in the executive suite and suddenly realize how similar the two addictions were and how I could no longer tell which was affecting Barry more.
I saw less and less of him. We had lunch one day but I told him some things he didn’t want to hear and he later told a reporter, “Sam’s a cynical cat.” In 1986 I told the Philadelphia Inquirer, “He’s basically done to ethnicity what Ronald Reagan has done to patriotism. He’s turned it into a personal preserve.” About the same time Marion told a reporter doing a feature on me that “Sam and I go back a long way, and over the years he’s become more radical, and I’ve become more conservative.”
But I still saw that it was a complex story. At one point, Charles Peters, editor of the Washington Monthly, asked me to do a piece on him. I told him that I would be glad to but that I wasn’t going to trash Barry. And I suggested a headline, “Failing the Faith.” A few days later, Peters cancelled the lunch at which we were to discuss the article and never got back to me. The next thing I knew, the Washington Monthly ran an article by Juan Williams trashing Marion Barry and using a variety of the headline I had suggested. Williams was on his way.
When Barry ran for mayoral reelection the last time, I took the position that I was all in favor of redemption; I just didn’t see why you had to do it in the mayor’s office. I broke up one talk show host by suggesting that Barry follow the example of a recently disgraced Irish bishop and go help the Indians of Guatemala.
On another talk show, Barry said that the press was always blaming him for all the city’s problems. I said that wasn’t fair; I only blamed him for 26.7% of the city’s problems. “I’ll buy that,” Marion replied. . . Later a white Washington suit actually asked me, “How did you derive that number?”
Yet I also knew that Barry – like other urban ethnic politicians – had far more to blame than himself. Whatever his faults – he knew he had been granted dispensation because – like a feudal lord – he provided significant favors in return. Barry had lived in Memphis and I often suspected he had learned his politics from Boss Trump. For he understood the quid pro quo of traditional urban corruption that had helped the Irish, Italians, Jews, and Poles break down the worst corruption of all – that of an elite unwilling to share its power with others. [Later I would call him the last of the great white mayors because his approach had more similarity with that of a Daley, Curly or La Guardia than that of more recent city officials]
It was far from a perfect deal but in the interim before “reformers” seized office again on behalf of their developer and other business buddies, more people would get closer to power than they ever had or would again.
And now the reformers are back. The young gentrifiers who think the greatest two moments in the city’s history is when Barry went to jail and when they arrived in town. And their politicians, who don’t feel it necessary to even tithe to the people.
Some years back, Marion, at a public dinner, ran into my wife and asked, “Where’s that sonofabitch?” But when he saw me we hugged because despite all our differences we both know we are still kin in a too tough world. I’d just lucked out better. –
Sam Smith, 2005 – Now that Marion Barry’s back in office, it may be useful to get a few facts straight. Over the years, Barry’s personal problems and those of his friends have been conflated with his record as a mayor. They are strikingly different. Further, Barry served as a closet for prejudice as his name became national slang for “black,” helping to speed a major decline in black political power.
DRUGS – Barry had a serious drug problem, probably developed in the 1980s. In this regard he had even more famous peers including George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. At one point , Clinton’ stepbrother was caught on a police tape saying that he has to get some cocaine for his brother who has “a nose like a vacuum cleaner.” Bush was a serious alcoholic and appears to remain what is known as a “dry drunk.” But neither of these politicians got the media attention for their habits and bad consequences as Barry did. This can be largely attributed to ethnic bias. It is also true, however, that Barry’s drug problems continued to plague him longer than either Bush or Clinton and Barry has yet to apologize to the people of DC for the harm and scorn his behavior caused them.
CORRUPTION – Barry ranks about average compared to past and present mayoral peers around the country. A number of the most publicized convictions involved misappropriation of funds to feed drug habits – hardly in the class of grand urban corruption. In fact, the single most corrupt individual in modern Washington was probably the head of the Teacher’s Union rather than anyone in the Barry machine. Barbara A. Bullock not only had over $5 million disappear from the union treasury, she had a $100,000 chauffeur and a wardrobe, artwork and jewelry that would have impressed Imelda Marcos. Bullock’s executive assistant was co-chair of the reelection campaign not of Barry but of Anthony Williams.
Barry’s capos never came close to such standards and Barry himself, in the little noted tradition of corrupt mayors, took relatively little for himself using power as his payoff.
It is fair to say that under Barry one could buy favors. Today one can buy large chunks of the city only it’s not called corruption, it’s called economic development. But the principle is the same: a tiny number of politically connected figures getting grossly more than they deserve out of city hall.
BUDGET – The city’s financial problems, contrary to the current impression, have run a familiar course whether or not Barry was in office and whether or not the city had home rule. In fact, Barry took office with a large deficit which he reduced in the 1980s. His drug problems not withstanding, he left office with a hefty balance. With the election of the far less competent Sharon Pratt Kelly and with a national economic deterioration, this improvement was dramatically reversed and the balance was wiped out. Further, about two thirds of the DC’s financial problems were on the revenue side which continue regardless of who is in office.
SOCIAL AND ECONOMIC CONDITIONS improved under Barry, most notably for women, blacks and gays. Washington became known as “Chocolate City,” an affectionate term used by blacks to describe perhaps the friendly large town in the country.
CRIME – Halfway through Barry’s first tenure, the murder rate started to soar in DC as in other larger cities. The evidence points to Reagan’s war on drugs which created much of the same sort of economic and criminal chaos as Prohibition had earlier. DC was more vulnerable because of its lack of organized mobs with clearly defined territory. Many of the murders were part of a turf war in the city’s largely anarchistic drug trade. An analysis of the murders in the late 1980s found that if you weren’t buying or selling drugs, your chances of being killed in DC were about the same as in Copenhagen.
BARRY’S REAL SIN – Barry’s real sins other than his personal recklessness was that he served as an agent of largely suburban white business interests in making policy in a black city. Thus vast sums were spent on “economic development” with no new jobs for local DC residents and only a marginal increase in sales tax revenue. Like many other black mayors he was the symbolic head of the city while white businessmen ran the place.
THINGS LOST SINCE BARRY – Loss of our public hospital, drastic deterioration of our public schools, the disappearance of reasonably priced housing, and a systemic degradation of every service for which the less fortunate have greater need than the wealthy. Meanwhile, far more than under Barry, those who circumvent the political system through money and influence operate with impunity. Also: the ability of poor folk to stay in the city, the treatment of demonstrators by the police, and the administration of the Fire Department.
In sum, Barry was never as bad a mayor – even during his worst personal crises – as many like to say. Perhaps the fairest way to describe Barry is to say that he was better at getting the things done he wanted to get done than were his successors. The problem was that what he wanted to do was not always right or enough, he took too much off the top, and too much time off for the wrong things.
Entering office with a biracial liberal coalition, he converted his base into one that relied heavily on black votes and white corporate money. The former he attracted by rhetoric, the latter with the real estate at his disposal. The most integrated meetings in town were when the Barry team sat down with its campaign contributors.
Barry was not the only black mayor to do so, and the end it turned out to be a fool’s paradise of black power because within a decade and a half, upper income whites were taking back the cities and the constituents of the black mayors were being evicted in what amounted to socio-economic urban cleansing.
But for awhile, it looked like Washington really was Chocolate City. And, in fact, the Barry administration did much to improve the social, economic and political climate of local blacks, so much so that even Jesse Jackson moved here for a while to take advantage of it. But in the end, Marion was like those Mahalia Jackson warned us against, when she sang that “you can’t go to church and shout all day Sunday, come home and get drunk and raise hell on a Monday.”
That, metaphorically and literally, is what Marion did and in the process he helped mightily to destroy the city’s dreams of self government and of a city with both soul and integrity. Further, he has yet to apologize to us for it.
Perhaps worst of all, he gave the enemies of a fair and decent city just what they needed to hide their own avarice behind a mantle of reform and for the creation of the narcissistic, greedy, gated town that is now Washington.
Sam Smith – Almost from the start I recognized something familiar about Bill Clinton. The soft southern voice so unwavering in its glib assurance, the excuse for everything, the absence of inquiry, the cynical charm, a cause well used a quarter century ago and then forgotten, the adulterated intelligence, the inconsistency, the willingness to use anything or anyone, the undisciplined egocentrism, the populist rhetoric playing bumper tag with corporatist policies, the drugs, the women, and the whiff of the underworld. It was not new; I had, after all, known Marion Barry for over 25 years.
There were, to be sure, differences. Barry retreated into an ethnic cocoon; Clinton’s ambitions became national. Clinton was white and Barry was black. There was another difference. When Barry was caught with women or drugs, the Washington Post played the story with glee; when Gennifer Flowers and stories of Clinton drug use came up, the Post spiked or subordinated them. Two and half weeks after the Monica Lewinsky story broke, including logs showing three dozen visits to the White House, the Post called the relationship “ambivalent.” None of Barry’s activities had been reported as “ambivalent.” In the end a whole city would have to pay for Barry’s faults. Not even Clinton has had to pay for his.
When Barry ran for reelection I appeared on a TV show with Barry. I pointed out to him that he had never apologized to the people of the city for the pain he had caused them. Barry went into his redemption speech; he ended by saying that he hoped some day “Sam would consider me redeemed, too.”
That was the end of the show and we walked out together and sat down in the lounge next to the studio. “Marion,” I said, “I wasn’t talking about your redemption. There are a lot of people in this town who were embarrassed and hurt by what you did and I don’t see any sign that you even recognize it.” Barry didn’t seem to understand what I was talking about and so I said, “Look, isn’t one of the twelve steps that you’re meant to make amends to those you have harmed along the way?”
For a moment, he connected: “You mean I should tell them that I’m sorry.?”
“It might help.”
Barry nodded and excused himself, but he hadn’t really heard. As I looked into his well-trained eyes I realized I had sought something beyond his vision. For him there were no others.
I thought of that evening the other day when Bill Clinton was asked what message he might send to Monica Lewinsky. He made a joke of the question and when another reporter asked if he might resign, he said, “Never.” I looked into Clinton’s well-trained eyes and knew the reporters had asked something beyond his vision. For him there were no others.
Sam Smith – The notorious DC Transit wanted to raise its fares and the local chapter of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee had organized to stop it. They urged citizens with cars to drive bus passengers during a one-day boycott.
I joined the volunteers. On the morning of January 24, 1966, 1 hauled myself out of bed, swallowed a cup of coffee, warmed up my ’54 Chrysler, and made my way to Sixth and H Streets Northeast, one of the assembly points for volunteer jitneys. A boycott organizer filled my car with three high school girls and a middle- aged and rather fat woman.
A bus drove by and it was empty. “They’re all empty,” the woman said, It was the first bus I had seen that morning and I wondered if she was right.
If both the fat lady and her husband worked, the five cent fare increase Chalk was seeking would cost them two week’s worth of groceries over the course of a year.
I let my passengers off and headed back to Sixth and H. At Florida and New York, I counted five empty or near-empty buses. It wasn’t even nine o’clock in the morning and the boycott was working,
“It’s beautiful,” the man in the slightly frayed brown overcoat said after he told me he was headed for Seventeenth Street. “It’s working and it’s beautiful. Hey, you see those two there. Let’s try and get them.”
I pulled over to the right lane by a stop where two men stood.
“Hey man, why spend thirty cents? Get in,” my rider called to the pair.
“You headed downtown?”
“Yeah, get in.”
“Great. It’s working, huh? Great!”
At the delicatessen at Twenty-fourth and Benning, one of the assembly points, a young black who worked with SNCC greeted me: “Been waiting all morning for a car to work from here; said they were going to have one, but they didn’t send it. Want a cup of coffee?”
“I’m tired, man. Been up all night down at the office. We got some threats. One bunch said they were going to bomb us, but they didn’t.”
We got into my car and continued east on Benning. Lots of empty buses.
“We’ve got to live together, man. You’re white and you can’t help it. I’m Negro and I can’t help it. But we still can get along. That’s the way I feel about it.” I agreed. “You ever worked with SNCC before?” “Nope,” I said.
‘Well, I’11 tell you man, you hear a lot of things. But they’re a good group. They stick together. You know, like if you get in trouble, you know they’re going to be in there with you. If you get threatened they’ll have people around you all the time. They stick together. That’s good, man.”
Later, I picked up a man at a downtown bus stop. The woman in the back seat asked him, “You weren’t waiting for a bus, were you?”
“No. I just figured someone would come along and pick me up.”
“That’s good, ’cause if you were waiting for a bus I was going to bop you upside your head.”
We all laughed and the man reassured her again.
“You know,” the woman in back continued, “there were some of the girls at work who said they were going to ride the bus and they really made me mad. I thought I’d go get a big stick and stand at the bus stop and bop ’em one if they got on Mr. Chalk’s buses. Some people just don’t know how to cooperate. And you know, you don’t have nothing in this world until you get people together. Hey, lookit over there, let’s see if that guy’s going out northeast.”
People stuck together that Monday, I carried seventy-one people, only five of them white. SNCC estimated that DC Transit lost 130,000 to 150,000 fares during the boycott. Two days later, the transit commission, in a unanimous but only temporary decision, denied DC Transit the fare hike. The commission’s executive director dryly told reporters that the boycott played no part in the decision. He was probably right. The commission worried about such things as cash dividends, investor’s equity, rate of return, depreciated value, and company base. The boycotters worried about a nickel more a ride. And in the end, the commission was to approve the fare hike and then more; a few years later the fare was up to forty cents.
But the boycott was important, anyway. Never had so many Washingtonians done anything so irregular and contrary to official wishes. The assumption that DC residents would passively accept the injustices of their city was shattered. SNCC and the Free DC Movement had laid the groundwork for future action.
After the bus boycott, I wrote a letter to its leader congratulating him and offering to help in the future. Not long after the leader, Marion S. Barry, and his colleague, L. D. Pratt, were sitting in my living room talking about how I could help in SNCC’s public relations. I readily agreed; for the first time in my life I had joined a movement.
Three years earlier Barry had quit his $5,500 a-year post teaching chemistry at Knoxville College in Tennessee and joined the SNCC. He soon showed up in Washington to head the local office. Barry early formed an improbable and ultimately nearly explosive partnership with an erstwhile farm im-plements manufacturer, salesman, self-styled nutrition expert, and economic theoretician named L. D. Pratt. Barry was lean, black, soft-spoken, self-contained, and given to wearing a straw plantation style hat; Pratt was husky, white, excitable, demonstrative, and covered his baldness with a felt fedora that made him appear a character out of a one-column cut in a forties edition of Time magazine.
Together they designed the boycott and a drive to win self-government for the colony of Washington. Although the life of the Free DC Movement would be measured in months, it seemed like years, so much was crammed into its short existence. Barry and Pratt both worked themselves to the marrow and it was during those months that Barry first gained a long-lingering reputation for always being late for ap-pointments, news conferences, and actions. “I work on CPT– colored people’s time,” explained Barry. Part of my job was to stand on the street-corner and convince the press that Marion really would show up if they just waited a bit longer. The reporters would bitch, but since Barry was shaking up the city, they mostly waited anyhow.
Barry’s subsequent moves in his drive for passage of right-to-vote legislation in Congress included an effort to get businessmen in downtown stores and along H Street (a black shopping area second only to downtown in commercial importance) to support the movement by displaying its sticker in their windows. Hun-dreds of orange and black stickers with the slogan “Free DC” below a shattered chain went up in store windows; but the threat of a business boycott led other merchants to cry blackmail, and some of the more traditional civil rights and home rule leaders began to back away from Barry’s tough tactics.
In the coming months, Barry and his organization would disrupt the calm of the city with increasing fre-quency. A number of Free DC supporters were arrested at the annual Cherry Blossom Festival. By the following fall, Barry would have been arrested three times, for failing to “move on,” for disorderly conduct, and for holding a Free DC block party without official sanction.
Barry used his arrests to make points. After being arrested for failing to move on at a policeman’s order, Barry said, “It is a bad law that gives policemen the sole discretion in such matters. Especially in Washington where the cops are so uneducated and awful. They use the law as a harassing device against Negroes.” And he warned, less than two years before the 1968 riot, that the attitude of police might lead to an outbreak of racial violence.
While Barry was on the streets, on the tube, in court, and in jail, his associate, L. D. Pratt, was developing a reputation as the mystery man behind the operation dis-turbing the tranquility of the colonial capital.
Marion was leading a movement, but it had some of the intensity, closeness and spirit of a rebellion. Barry enlisted into the cause anyone he could find. You would be talking on the phone and a special operator would break in with an “emergency call” and it would be Barry or Pratt or someone else with the latest crisis or plan. There were black cops who had been spiritually seconded to the movement and ministers who served as a link between the radical Barry and the more moderate civil rights movement and friendly reporters who still believed there was an objective difference between justice and injustice,. And through it all was movement, excitement and hope, not even dampened by the thirtieth chorus of “We Shall Overcome” sung in a church hall while waiting for Marion finally to show up.
Barry and Pratt not only upset policemen and government officials; they perturbed the established civil rights and home rule leadership in the city. While a few such leaders, Walter Fauntroy prime among them, were careful not to undercut Barry and provided as much help as they felt they could, others were plainly annoyed by the upstarts.
Tensions grew when the Free DC Movement decided to take on the White House Conference on Civil Rights that had been scheduled for May 1966. Barry planned to raise the issue of home rule at the conference and, in an-nouncing the plans, chastised the moderate Coalition for Conscience for “wavering” in its support of tile plan. Two days later the Washington Post reported, “Washing-ton civil rights leaders yesterday pondered the future of the campaign for home rule in light of the growing independence on the part of Free D.C. Movement leader Marion Barry Jr. One leader said it appears that the movement was at ‘the end of its relationship with the Coalition of Conscience,’ the city’s loosely knit confedera-tion of ministers and civil rights groups.”
But it was not just the Free DC’s militancy and independence that upset the old leaders. They also were profoundly disturbed by the rise of the black power idea; Coalition co-chairman Channing Phillips stated, “The black nationalist stand of SNCC is inconsistent with the Coalition’s philosophy.”
Still, while Barry was an anathema to the white business leaders and considered a rogue by the local civil rights establishment, as early as 1966 a poll found him ranked fifth by black residents as the person who had done the most for blacks in DC.
In SNCC and elsewhere, the spirit of black nationalism was indeed awakening. Black power had its roots in the deep frustration of the civil rights movement with the progress towards some sustainable form of equality. In 1963, Howard Zinn, then a professor at Spellman College, told a SNCC conference that the ballot box would not give blacks much power. Zinn said SNCC should build up “centers of power outside the official political mechanism.”
This was a time when the official symbol of the Alabama Democratic Party included a banner reading “White Supremacy — For the Right.” The SNCC-organized Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party had attempted to be seated at the national Democratic convention and was rebuffed, offered only two non-voting at-large seats to represent not Mississippi but American blacks in general. SNCC communications director Julian Bond twice won election to the Georgia legislature, and twice that body refused to seat him. Jerry Demuth, writing in The Idler in October 1966 asked: “After Julian Bond, Atlantic City and the Alabama Democratic Party with its proclamation of white supremacy, what is there except a Black Panther Party?”
The voices of black power of the time were varied. Two months after being replaced as SNCC chair by the more militant Stokely Carmichael, John Lewis explained:
“I support the concept of black power and I have tried repeatedly to articulate it to people in terms they can understand, so that they will know it is for civil rights, not against whites.”
The National Committee of Negro Churchmen of the National Council of Churches tried to combine black power and integration in an August 1965 newspaper ad:
A more equal sharing of power is precisely what is required as the precondition of authentic human interaction. We understand the growing demand of Negro and white youth for a more honest kind of integration: one which increases rather than decreases the capacity of the disinherited to participate with power in all the structures of our common life. Without this capacity to participate with power — i.e. to have some organized political and economic strength to really influence people with whom one interacts — integration is not meaningful. For the issue is not one of racial balance but of honest racial interaction.
But this was a hope far from current reality and many more blacks listened to the view of Carmichael: “Integration is an insidious subterfuge for white supremacy.” He told a crowd in Greenwood, MS, “We been saying ‘freedom’ for six years and we ain’t got nothing. What we’re gonna start saying now is ‘Black Power.'”
The most important white at SNCC, L. D. Pratt, con-tinued to play a major role for some time, but his ability to work with Barry declined sharply and, and after receiving physical threats dropped out of the local scene.
Before that, however, the Free DC Movement was to play a major part in bringing the issue of self-determination further in Congress than it had been in almost a hun-dred years, The militancy of the Free DC Movement, so disliked by both congressmen and civil rights moderates alike, provided the counter-pressure necessary to scare more than a few legislators into thinking that maybe it was about time for a little self-government in DC. In 1967 President Johnson reorganized the local government with an appointed chief executive and city council. He told them to act as though they had been elected. . In 1968 the city got an elected school board.