Tales from the attic: Marion Barry and me

 Sam Smith – In1966 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.

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?”

“Thanks.”

“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.

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.

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

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 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 implements 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 like 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, for 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 appointments, 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.

In the coming months, Barry and his organization would disrupt the calm of the city with increasing frequency. 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.

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.

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 just Mississippi but all American blacks.

When people would write about Marion Barry years later, they wouldn’t mention the good part because they had never seen it. All they saw was the cynical, corroded shell of a man they hadn’t known and thought it had been that way all along. Like an old car rusting in a pasture.

As Barry moved into politics, first on the school board, then the city council, then the mayor’s office I had moved my support and enthusiasm with him, and without apologies. Once in the top job as mayor, however, his weaknesses quickly lost their constraints and whatever greatness Marion might have possessed started to disintegrate.

I had been close to Marion, but there came a time when I remembered Jack Burden, the journalist turned henchman to Willie Stark in “All the King’s Men” and I told myself I didn’t want to end up like him. And so I let increasing distance grow between us until finally there was nothing except the passing reference to times of which I suspect both of us were prouder.

Later I would sometimes tweak him when we met.

“What’s happenin’, Sam?”

“Not much, Marion. Just staying home with the wife and kids. How about you?”

One February of an election year, he told me at a party, “We’ve got to have lunch, Sam.” I replied, “Marion, we don’t have to have lunch until at least July.”

Yet there was a portion of the bond that remained unbroken. I would sometimes describe Barry as a drunk uncle you both liked and hated. He introduced me once as “one of the first white people who’d have anything to do with me” and to his new third wife he said, “Sam and I go back a long time. Over the years he’s become more radical and I’ve become more conservative.”

When Barry ran for 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. With a straight face, I suggested as an alternative that he follow the example of an Irish bishop whose long-ago love affair had just been exposed. The bishop had gone to Guatemala to care for the Indians in the mountains. The thought completely broke up the show’s host.

During the campaign I appeared on a TV show with Barry. In a more serious manner, I pointed out to him that he had never apologized to the people of the city for the pain he had caused them. He went into his redemption speech and 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 still didn’t seem to understand what I was talking about and so I said, “Look, isn’t it 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.

We fell increasingly distant. On one occasion he told local radio commentator Mark Plotkin, “Sam’s a cynical cat.” And some years later he ran into my wife and asked, “Where is that son of a bitch?”

But three months before he died we had a nice exchange on the local public radio station.

o

I still think of the good years. The years in which Barry was one of a handful of people who made self-determination for DC possible, the years in which he was the voice of progress and sanity on the school board and city council. I think of a man who was willing to risk his life for the freedom of others, who was willing to go to jail on the chance it would help others gain a measure of liberty. And like Jack Burden writing of Willie Stark, “I have to believe he was a great man. What happened to his greatness is not the question. Perhaps he spilled it on the ground the way you spill a liquid when the bottle breaks. Perhaps he piled up his greatness and burnt it in one great blaze in the dark like a bonfire and then there wasn’t anything but dark and the embers winking. Perhaps he could not tell his greatness from ungreatness and so mixed them together that what was adulterated was lost. But he had it. I must believe that.”

On the wall of my office is an autographed bumper sticker from Marion’s first campaign for mayor. It reads: “Barry — the way things ought to be.”In his last words Willie Stark said, “It might have been all different, Jack. You got to believe that.”