Monday, November 24, 2014

The Legacy of Marion Barry

On Friday evening, the Annual DC Historical Studies Conference hosted "The Legacy of Marion Barry" roundtable discussion. It was a fascinating discussion, but there is so much more to say about his legacy. This is especially true, given that Marion Barry passed away this morning.

University of Maryland, Baltimore Country, history professor G. Derek Musgrove and I organized the roundtable, with the support of the chair of the conference organizing committee Matthew Gilmore. The roundtable brought together authors (and one filmmaker) who had written or are in the process of writing about Marion Barry:
  • Steven Diner, Professor of History, Rutgers - Newark, and author of “Washington, The Black Majority: Race and Politics in the Nation’s Capital,” in Snowbelt Cities: Metropolitan Politics in the Northeast and Midwest since World War II. 1990. 
  • Dana Flor, filmmaker, “The Nine Lives of Marion Barry.”
  • Maurice Jackson, Professor of History, Georgetown University. Working on a social, political and cultural history of African-Americans in Washington (1700s until the present).
  • Harry Jaffe, journalist, Dream City: Race, Power, and the Decline of Washington, D.C. 1994. 
  • Jonathan Agronsky, journalist, author of Marion Barry: The Politics of Race.
  • G. Derek Musgrove, Moderator and Professor of History, University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
The speakers offered many amusing stories. At the same time, the history professors Maurice Jackson and Steven Diner worked hard to pull the discussion away from its persistent focus on the personal life of Barry and his character flaws. Jackson stated that he did not consider Barry the savior of African Americans, nor did he consider him a pariah. Barry was part of much broader social and political movements that shaped the city we have today. Barry did not end poverty in DC, but, Diner emphasized, others mayors across the country have not eradicated poverty either. Like all cities in the US, DC suffered from the very American and very global urban crisis of the 1970s through 1990s. Jackson and Diner sought to capture the world created in DC during the 1970s in which Barry was one of many important actors. 

Jackson provided a progressive analysis of Barry that recognizes the complicated class nature of Barry's legacy:
  1. While white residents may condemn Barry, Barry has been a long-time ally of white gentrification. He worked to gentrify downtown DC, supported the revitalization movement, voted against rent control, and provided benefits to both white and black elites. Jackson said that both white and black elites were responsible for Barry remaining in office and for the urban crisis. [Jackson later gave this further clarification: both black and white elites financially did well during the Barry years but that the Reagan years and federal budget cuts played a major role in the urban crisis of the 1990s; I would say that the elites could also be seen as having a role in the urban crisis.]
  2. At the very same time, Barry has been one of the only leading politicians that speaks for the poor in DC, not in a condescending way or from the viewpoint of charities, but as an equal. Barry represents hope for, and provided needed jobs and services to, low-income residents in particular. In a previous post, I discussed a Washington Post article about long-time supporters of Barry, including a Richard Butler: 
"But even if Skyland gets a Walmart, Richard Butler won’t have the mayor he wants most. Butler, 50, learned to cook while he was locked up. He’s now doing well as a line cook in one of the city’s new restaurants. Have any of the recent mayors made his life better? 'All I want is Marion Barry,' said Butler, who is African American and a permanent resident of Barrytown. 'He’s the only one who ever looked out for the people, always said the right things to us.'"
Agronsky similarly noted that many low-income residents see Barry as the "Black Rocky," "someone who keeps on fighting until the end."

Flor observed that "who Marion Barry is is who you are." For example, if you or a family member gained a job through Barry's summer youth jobs program or a job in the DC government, then you would likely feel much gratitude toward Barry. Jaffe noted that Barry opened the city government to African American employees and should be given credit for that. An audience member, who had worked for Barry in the late 1980s and early 1990s, discussed how people sought to work for Barry because he was a "visionary" with "a genuine spirit of public service." After years of Congress' mismanagement of the city, Barry got the city's budget in order and began building a new kind of city, "a modern city." Jaffe  recognized Barry as "the best politician in DC" with a deep understanding of the political structure with which he had to contend to build this new city. In his autobiography, Barry writes:
We spent a lot of time fighting against folks who were not affected by poverty, unemployment, homelessness, inequality or the citywide deficiencies in education. As the mayor and the leader of the local government, I saw that we could use budgets and more city revenue and resources to try and create more opportunities for those who did not have opportunities, while still managing a major city to do well. That was my job as the mayor, not to be satisfied with the status quo, but to build a much better Washington for everyone. (p. 158)
And, yes, there is much more to say about his legacy.

Rest in Peace, Marion Barry. 

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