Sometimes, as Forrest Gump famously said, I guess there just aren’t enough rocks. When you think of the now deceased former Washington, DC mayor Marion Barry, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? I don’t have to prompt you… everyone knows which of the many scandalous news stories surrounding Barry are the ones which really stick out in their minds. And while some public servants can make a few mistakes and still go on to be remembered fondly for their other good works, surely there are limits to our tolerance and good graces. But not for the people of the District of Columbia, apparently. Their big debate this month is how many memorials they should dedicate to the man.
Marion Barry’s history as one of D.C.’s most impactful and controversial public servants is well documented.
But a new city-appointed commission is working to further cement his legacy in the District by creating new ways to memorialize him.
The commission has proposed four memorials to honor the late mayor, including renaming the student center at UDC, Ballou Senior High School and Oxon Run Park all after Barry. They’ve also floated the idea of commissioning a statue of the Mayor for Life in or around D.C. City Hall.
“I think they’re great, especially naming Ballou High School after him and putting a statue in front of the Wilson Building,” Cora Masters Barry, Barry’s Widow, said.
Rumors had swirled around DC for a while during Barry’s first, lengthy term as mayor. When he was finally busted for smoking crack and sent to prison for six months that looked like the end of the road. But in some ways I think what gets people up in arms about assigning the Mayor for Life an honored place on history’s pedestal wasn’t just that drug bust. People make mistakes and if they atone for them and turn their lives around they can certainly find redemption. But what went on with Barry seemed to be more than just the failings of the man. It was the rotten core of the system in that city. Barry was defiant throughout the entire trial (though they showed him on film doing the deed) and scoffing at his accusers. His faith was well rewarded since the jury – which seemed to be comprised of quite a few of his fans – failed to convict him on all but one or two charges, leading to the short prison sentence.
Rather than punishing him, the local citizens from Ward 8 turned around and elected him to a city council seat essentially the moment he was out of the slammer. (And it wasn’t even close. He took nearly three quarters of the vote.) Two years later he won another election for mayor. And all the while he was in office, Barry was famous for handing out lucrative contracts to his supporters with little or no regard for their competency as long as everyone got some of the government cash. After finally leaving office for the last time the Feds had to go after him because he simply stopped paying his taxes in the late 90s. The guy was a walking billboard for corruption and crime, and yet he was the beloved, go to guy for Ward 8.
With all that in mind, it’s no wonder that there is rather vocal opposition to naming schools after him and erecting statues in his honor. But then again, if that’s still the prevailing attitude in the Ward today, maybe they should just do it. You have to give the people what they want, and nobody knew that better than Marion Barry.