“In Washington, DC, over my sixteen years as Mayor, as well as after my sixteen years, over 100,000 young people got jobs, and we put thousands of families in new housing. We put it in the budget and made it a priority for these youth and their families. We wanted to make sure we had more jobs and training for young people and adults and affordable housing for more people to live.” – Mayor for Life: The Incredible Story of Marion Barry, Jr. by Marion Barry.
On the occasion of his posthumous 86th birthday, I introduced, and the Council unanimously passed, a resolution declaring March 6th, 2022, “Marion Barry Day” in the District of Columbia.
Marion Barry was one of the most visionary and revolutionary mayors in United States history. Born into Jim Crow-era Mississippi, Barry witnessed and experienced the injustices and dehumanization of segregation first-hand. He eventually threw himself into the civil rights movement, and his activism led him to the District where he served as our second and fourth mayor. His love for the Black community was inspirational, and it empowered generations of Black Washingtonians to call on the government to eliminate disparities, from education to employment to income.
Thousands of native Washingtonians still say, “Marion Barry gave me my first job!” Those first jobs stemmed from the trailblazing Stay in School Program that guaranteed summer employment for young people. The Stay in School Program offered thousands of District youth an entree into the professional world that many would not have had but for Barry’s effort. It continues to this day, five decades after the program’s creation, and is now known as the Mayor Marion S. Barry Summer Youth Employment Program.
In addition to giving residents their first job, Mayor Barry put many women and Black Washingtonians into leadership positions within the government, increased the number of government contracts awarded to Black-owned businesses from five percent to 40 percent, and required private corporations doing business with the District to appoint women and minorities to leadership positions. Barry’s transformative work single-handedly expanded the Black middle class in the District and created a generation of Black millionaires in a time when economic and cultural segregation was rampant. The District, also known as “Chocolate City”, became a place where Black people could thrive.
Barry was a skilled negotiator who brought significant economic development to the District, making many first-time investments in underserved communities and providing jobs to help people in the District. Barry brought to the District the MCI Center (now Capital One Arena), the Four Seasons Hotel, and the Frank D. Reeves Municipal Building, which helped revitalize U Street following a long economic depression after the 1968 riots.
Barry embraced Go-Go music, now the official music of the District, and provided free Go-Go concerts to young people through the Department of Parks and Recreation. He often invited Go-Go bands to perform in public forums.
Despite these successes, in one of his final interviews, Barry expressed regret for not doing enough to build the Black middle class. He said, “Look at [the] income gap in Washington, DC. In Ward 8? $25,000. Average family income Ward 3? It’s $200,000. So, I was not able to do all I needed to do to close that income gap.”
While the District continues to change, many of the disparities that Barry worked to address persist. I hope people will continue to look at Barry’s transformative legacy and that it will continue to raise our expectations for what government can and must do to address the deep equity gap in our city.
Today, the Council recognizes Marion Barry for his five decades of work and dedicated service to the District of Columbia as beloved Mayor and Councilmember through the Marion Barry Day Recognition Resolution of 2022. May his legacy continue to inspire generations of bold leaders.