Before his fall from grace, Barry had been one of the nation's
most promising black politicians. Years later, many Washingtonians
would consider him a scoundrel but he remained a hero to many others
in impoverished parts of the city, even as his continuing battles
with substance abuse went public.
Barry, who was serving as a city councilman, was hospitalized
briefly last week and collapsed hours after being released on
Saturday night, media reports said. He died at the United Medical
Center in Washington, spokeswoman Natalie Williams said. The cause
of death was not disclosed.
Barry served three terms from 1979 until 1991 when he went to prison
for six months. He reclaimed the job in 1995.
Gregarious and charismatic, he came to be known as Washington's
"mayor for life", a label he said he disliked but still used in the
title of his autobiography "Mayor for Life: The Incredible Story of
Marion Barry, Jr."
President Barack Obama noted Barry's sometimes "tumultuous" life and
career but said he advanced civil rights for all.
"During his decades in elected office in D.C., he put in place
historic programs to lift working people out of poverty, expand
opportunity, and begin to make real the promise of home rule," Obama
said in a statement on Sunday.
Barry's third term was sullied by open talk of womanizing, drinking
and drug use, making him an easy target for comedians and drawing
media disdain. Several top aides were convicted of corruption. Barry
responded to criticism with denials and claims that he was the
victim of a racist media.
In his autobiography Barry said he was fueled in those days by a
"mix of power, attraction, alcohol, sex and drugs".
On Jan. 18, 1990, the married Barry met an ex-girlfriend, former
model Rasheeda Moore, in Washington's Vista Hotel. Hidden cameras
captured him asking Moore about the possibility of having sex and
then smoking a crack pipe before FBI agents and police rushed in to
During his six-week trial, in the midst of a Washington crack
epidemic and a rash of drug-related homicides, Moore testified that
she and Barry had used cocaine as many as 100 times.
Barry's lawyers pursued an entrapment defense and claimed victory
when the jury convicted him on only a misdemeanor count of cocaine
possession. Jurors acquitted him of another possession charge and
were deadlocked on 12 other charges.
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In sentencing Barry to six months in prison, the judge said the
mayor had "given aid, comfort and encouragement to the drug culture
at large and contributed to the anguish that illegal drugs have
inflicted on this city in so many ways for so long".
Prison could have meant the end of politics for the son of a
sharecropper from Itta Bena, Mississippi. But the humiliation did
not kill his political career.
Upon his release, Barry moved to Washington's Ward 8, one of the
city's grittiest areas, and easily won a City Council seat in 1992.
His campaign slogan was "I may not be perfect but I am perfect for
Two years later he shocked the nation by reclaiming the mayor's job
with 56 percent of the vote, though this time with very little
support from white voters.
Barry did not seek re-election at the end of his four-year term and
went into consulting work. But he could not stay away politics and
in 2004 easily won a seat on the City Council.
Barry started out in the civil rights movement while a student at Le
Moyne College and Fisk University in Tennessee, and took a
leadership role before being sent to Washington to continue his
He organized a boycott to protest against rising city bus fares and
campaigned for home rule for the District of Columbia, which was
controlled by the federal government.
Barry's first elected job was on the Washington school board,
becoming a national figure over the next 10 years. As a city
councilman in 1977 he was shot by a group of Hanafi Muslims during a
hostage crisis at the city's government building.
He became mayor in 1979 with broad support from both black and white
voters, focusing resources on poor neighborhoods, government
contracts for black businesses and the creation of jobs on the city
Barry was married four times and had one son.
(Additional reporting by Chris Michaud in New York, Steve Holland in
Washington; Editing by Alison Williams and Stephen Powell)
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