“He was just five years old when Mattie Barry, seeking a fresh start in life, moved north with her son and two older daughters to Memphis. . . . Her husband had been killed a year earlier in Itta Bena. Neither Marion Barry, Jr., nor his mother, who now lives in Memphis, will talk about the father or his untimely death, which, half a century later, still hangs like a dark, mysterious cloud over the family’s past.”
Was Marion Barry’s father lynched in 1940? If so, why has the opportunistic Barry kept so uncharacteristically quiet about it? A lynching in the family would be pure gold for such a master of the politics of racial victimization. Why has no reporter, including the author of this book, unearthed the facts surrounding the elder Barry’s death? True, lynchings are never recorded as such, not even in the Mississippi Delta of fifty years ago, but somebody ought to be able to find out something. And if some members of the media know what happened but won’t say, why won’t they?
This is just one intriguing point in a riveting book that reads like a black version of Suetonius’ The Twelve Caesars, starring Marion Barry as Tiberius in a baseball cap and a blue velour jogging suit, lolling on beds on tropical afternoons, smacking his lips over dusky Caribbean beauties while his modern Rome on the Potomac goes to rack and ruin.
Marion Barry is disgusting beyond belief, but he didn’t start out that way. After the move to Memphis he cracked the books and became the kind of kid who recites memorized poetry at family gatherings—his piece de resistance was “The House By the Side of the Road.” Yet even at this tender age he had another side to him. He sold the sandwiches his mother packed for his school lunch because his body could stand hunger better than his ego could stand empty pockets: he needed to hear the jingle of change. He also persuaded his sisters to sing on the street while he, in disturbingly pimplike fashion, collected donations from passersby.
In high school he worked part-time as a waiter at the American Legion Post, where he got even with whites by spitting in their soup. He made the National Honor Society and won a scholarship to black LeMoyne College in Memphis, majoring in chemistry—perhaps because it interested him, perhaps because he was driven to stand out from the crowd: “I looked around me, and I saw everybody was going to be a teacher in a black school or a social worker, and I didn’t want to be either of them.”
While at LeMoyne he adopted a middle name, “Shepilov,” which he happened to see in a newspaper. Dmitri Shepilov was a high-ranking member of the Soviet Communist Party in 1956-57. Around this time he became a local celebrity when he challenged a white member of LeMoyne’s board of trustees for saying: “The Negro is our brother, but he should be treated as a younger brother, and not as an adult.” He proceeded to Fisk University, Nashville’s famed black school, for a master’s in chemistry and a minor in sit-ins at the local Woolworth’s lunch counter; and on to a teaching assistantship at the University of Kansas, where white parents complained when their daughters were assigned to chemistry classes taught by him. In 1962 he returned to Tennessee and a job on the faculty of all-black Knoxville College, a period in which court records show he was arrested for allegedly passing bad checks (the charges were later dropped). This was also the year he married Blantie Evans, his first wife, who divorced him two years later because she could not compete with his true love—the civil rights movement—which gave him the attention and adulation he craved and took him to Washington, D.C., as a SNCC organizer.
What Agronsky calls Barry’s “dark side” of rage and resentment surfaced early in his Washington period. As a leader of the Free D.C. movement for home rule, he made white reporters pay him for interviews. Arrested for jaywalking, he punched a white cop and kicked out the door of the paddy wagon, but was acquitted by a jury of ten blacks and two whites. Wearing native African costumes and packing a .32, he started the notorious Youth Pride Economic Enterprise (YPEE), a federally funded circus that turned Washington into a less well-disciplined version of Al Capone’s Chicago.
The “disadvantaged youth” working at Pride-owned gas stations pulled guns on white customers, a Pride clean-up crew robbed the Greyhound bus terminal on their lunch break, and Pride trucks served as mobile shooting galleries for heroin addicts. Barry deflected criticism and discouraged investigations by a technique called “maumauing,” saying in effect: “‘Don’t ask, honky mother——, because if you do, we’re going to go out on the street, and we’re going to start a riot and say that the white man is trying to destroy black economic progress.’ And it scared the living s out of these liberals who didn’t want any trouble,” a black TV producer told the author.
His arrogance increased after the Martin Luther King riots in 1968. Describing how to rebuild the “new” D.C., he told the city council: “White people should be allowed to come back [to riot-torn areas] only if the majority of the ownership is in the hands of blacks. That is, they could come back and give their experience and their expertise—and then they should leave.” Accused of plagiarizitig his campaign speeches, he replied: “What’s wrong with that? That’s sophistication.” Life was one big 7-Eleven waiting to be robbed one way or another, and Marion Barry was ready.
Under Barry’s stewardship, life in the nation’s capital grew steadily more surreal: late-night crashes involving the mayoral limousine, his mother-in-law’s alleged torching of her ex-boyfriend’s house, his second wife’s purchase of a Volvo and a BMW on a salary of $23,000, top aides using city funds to pay their rent and buy groceries, ambulance drivers who couldn’t find the addresses of the sick and dying, bureaucrats sniffing cocaine at their desks, municipal clerical workers so incompetent and surly that they had to have a special training program to teach them how to answer the phone without insulting callers. As his paranoia mounted, Barry developed a taste for sudden getaways, sending his bodyguards to New York while be took off for a mountain spa for high-colonic enemas and meditation. Questioned about these costly ruses, Barry told reporters to mind their own business.
The author knows present-day Washington very well but he is sometimes shaky on the old city. He refers to the “de facto” segregation of D.C. public schools and states: “They would not even begin to integrate, through court-ordered bussing, until 10 years after the 1954 Brown decision.” I attended D.C. public schools from the day I entered kindergarten in 1941 to my graduation from Roosevelt High School in 1953, and the segregation was de jure. In 1948 and again in 1950 the two white junior highs I attended were turned over to the Negro school system and we were transferred elsewhere by order of the school board. My high school (also the alma mater of Mayor Sharon Pratt Dixon) was integrated in the fall of 1954, as were several other schools in mixed neighborhoods, in hopes of setting an example for the South, of which Washington was the official “Gateway.”
Otherwise, Agronsky, a reporter for the Voice of America and the son of Martin Agronsky, relates Barry’s story with a stark, just-the-facts-ma’am objectivity that makes his book all the more devastating, especially in his shocking account of the Barry jury’s deliberations. Clearly repelled by his subject, he is nonetheless scrupulously fair, sometimes too much so. He credits Barry with maintaining racial peace by speaking calming words after his trial when he could so easily have exploited his supporters’ rage for his own purposes, but such a view ignores Barry’s psychology. He is both too shrewd and too hypocritical to call openly for a bloodbath. Except for his sexual appetites he is oddly like the feline Robespierre, distancing himself from the gross Danton (Al Sharpton) and the maddened Marat (Gus Savage) while he waits for the mainstream to dry up.
[Marion Barry: The Politics of Race, by Jonathan I.Z. Agronsky (Latham, New York: British American Publishing) 380 pp., $21.95]