The death of Marion Barry last week inspired all the usual observations: that he was the son of a Mississippi sharecropper; that he was a veteran, albeit a minor one, of the civil rights movement; that he was better known for his scandals, as mayor of the District of Columbia, than for his achievements, such as they were; that he had a fervent following in the community that remained loyal unto death; that once, in his 1980s heyday, he pronounced himself “mayor for life.”
The Scrapbook has always assumed that the last self-description was delivered tongue-in-cheek, but with Mayor Barry, you could never be sure. Indeed, from The Scrapbook’s perspective, the enduring significance of Marion Barry has little to do with the man himself and everything to do with the cause he championed through four tumultuous mayoral terms: statehood for Washington, D.C. If Barry’s life and work has any historic resonance, it is the incontrovertible fact that the city of Washington, D.C., will never become a state of the union. Congressional Democrats may support that idea, and Democratic presidents (Carter, Clinton, Obama) may pay lip service to it; but it won’t happen. And Marion Barry explains why.
The nation’s capital, defined by the Constitution as “the seat of the Government” under its federal enclave provision, is in reality a middle-sized city which has shrunk in acreage since it was founded, and in population (646,000) since the 1950s. It is true that residents of the District have but one nonvoting representative in Congress—although one could argue that it is represented by Congress as a whole—and that their self-government is limited by the jurisdiction of Congress. But no one is obliged by law to maintain residency in Washington, D.C., and there is little sentiment outside the metropolitan area to bestow statehood status on a midsized metropolis whose principal industry is politics and government.
The only reason anyone outside of Washington ever heard of Marion Barry—or was aware that the District of Columbia has an elected mayor—was his well-publicized misconduct in the 1980s and ’90s. America has its share of buffoonish public servants, and the occasional politician-criminal; Barry’s distinction was the special embarrassment his misdeeds attached to the capital of the United States of America.
He was neither the first elected mayor since the District of Columbia was granted limited home rule in 1967, nor was he the first African-American mayor. But he was, thus far, the only one to spend time in prison—and in so doing, kept the notion of statehood for Washington, D.C., off the table, probably for good.