Mayor for Life

Written by Netisha Currie and Tina Ligon, National Archives at College Park

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

Today is the annual Turkey Giveaway – a local tradition of Southeast Washington, DC in which former mayor Marion Barry would give out turkeys and vegetables to less fortunate residents so that they might have a happy Thanksgiving. In spite of his recent death, the event goes on as scheduled because planners say, “that’s what he would have wanted.”

Marion S. Barry

Marion S. Barry, Jr. was born into a sharecropping family on March 6, 1936 in Itta Bena, Mississippi. Growing up in the South, Barry noticed at an early age the disparities between blacks and whites in education and employment. He fought for equal rights as an Eagle Scout and as a student member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Barry earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from LeMoyne College in Memphis, Tennessee (1958) and then began a master’s program at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. While at Fisk, Barry participated in the student sit-ins that were spreading across the South. In April 1960, Barry, along with John Lewis, Diane Nash, and James Bevel, traveled to Raleigh, North Carolina to answer the call for organized student protest. Barry was one of the founding members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and was the first national chairman of the student group that would work towards desegregation in the South.

In June 1965, Barry relocated to Washington, DC where he began his political career. Armed with passion and a desire for equality for African Americans, he soon became a favorite of Washingtonians. Barry was first elected to the newly minted city council after Home Rule was established in 1974. He went on to serve four terms as Mayor of Washington, DC in 1978, 1982, 1986, and 1994, and was serving as council member for Ward 8 when he passed away. He dealt with several issues that included city administration, public housing, violent crime, unemployment, and DC statehood.

Marion S. Barry

There are a number of records in the holdings of the National Archives that document Marion Barry’s personal life and public career. The records relating to Barry’s famous drug bust, investigation, and trial are permanent government record, as well as records relating to public programs and works he implemented as mayor. In his first term as mayor, Marion Barry instituted the Summer Youth Employment Program. Aimed at providing opportunity for under-served low-income young people of the District, the program continues today (entirely on District funding) and is credited as one of the factors in expanding the Black middle class of the Washington, DC area. On July 20, 1983, at the occasion of $800,000 of additional federal funds being allocated to DC, President Ronald Reagan spoke in the Rose Garden before presenting Mayor Barry with a check:

When Secretary Ray Donovan learned that my adopted hometown here was running out of money for its summer jobs program, he called Mayor and offered to help. The result is today’s check drawn from available funds at the Department of Labor. These funds will be added to the $8.2 million already transferred to the city and should provide 2,200 more summer jobs for unemployed young people in our Nation’s Capital, a city that is very special to all of us as Americans.

This money is part of over $800 million that is being distributed nationally to enable State and local governments, and this will provide an estimated 800,000 summer jobs for young people throughout the United States. Our goal is to offer disadvantaged young people valuable work experience and at the same time provide the community with their services, which, I might add, will be more than welcome by cities and nonprofit agencies which will be receiving their help.

-“Remarks on Providing Additional Federal Funds for the Washington, DC Summer Youth Employment Program July 20, 1983.” Public Papers of President Ronald W. Reagan. Ronald Reagan Presidential Library

Another item of note is the motion picture from the Office of Economic Opportunity’s Police Program. This series of film documents the early years of an experiment on police-community relations. In the film CG 8225: The People and the Police, 1971 (NAID 73174) Marion Barry is shown as one of the community representatives charged with deciding on where a pilot precinct should be established, and ways to improve relations with the police force. Marion Barry, in his ‘activist phase’, brings up the issue of community distrust in the police force, and urges that citizens should be in control of the precinct. The film clearly displays Barry’s charisma, passion for the people he represented, and leadership that he would carry throughout his storied career in public office. Click here for the full film in YouTube.

Mural in Petworth, Washington, DC


7 thoughts on “Mayor for Life

  1. I must disagree with your statement that
    “and is credited as one of the factors in creating the Black middle class of the Washington, DC area”…. The Black Middle Class was in place long before Barry came to DC. Barry had nothing to do with its creation. Historical studies have already been written to document this.


    1. Thanks Patrice, that is true. I did not mean to communicate that perception, more accurately I would revise it as “expanding the Black middle class”. One of the more recent books about Washington, DC residents is First Class: The Legacy of Dunbar, America’s First Black Public High School by Alison Stewart.

  2. Thank you for writing and sharing this article. My very first job was through the Summer Youth Employment Program that Marion Barry founded. He has done a lot of good within the DC area. It’s wonderful to see the positive that he’s done be displayed in such a manner as written. He will always be “Mayor for Life”!

  3. Nice post. Happy to see NARA resources on Marion Barry cited.

    I have a feeling that there is more documentation remaining in the custody of various Federal agencies that have yet to be accessioned by NARA. And goodness, knows, documenting the life of Barry is certainly a good reason to advocate for a well supported DC Archives.

    We won’t see the like of Mayor Barry again!

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