Beyond the Rhetoric: We Need More Marion Barrys
Harry C. Alford | 12/1/2014, 10:37 a.m.
Last week we lost an American Icon, the Honorable Marion Barry who changed this nation in ways most don’t understand. I remember coming to Washington, DC for the first time back in 1964. It was shocking to me as I never realized that DC was a deep southern city replete with Jim Crow segregation. The housing was totally segregated and we rarely saw Whites. We were told to not drive into Prince Georges County – especially Silver Spring as the White police force was prone to beating Blacks.
One year later (1965) Marion Barry, a civil rights activist from a small town in Mississippi, would arrive to make change. Barry along with other activists started to make change – big changes. Marion earned his “stripes” in the local political circles and when the opportunity came for him to elevate from the city council to the mayor’s office he seized it.
To everyone’s pleasant surprise he became a mayor of his people. He was totally committed to the economic future of Washington, DC. Marion was one of the first Black mayors to realize that while in office he could make a difference in terms of Black economic development. He recognized opportunities that good, bona fide and certified Black own businesses could perform contractually for cities and create massive employment for the Black residents of each city.
Black businesses started to grow in Washington, DC because their mayor demanded it. There was no opportunity too big for Mayor Barry to intercede on behalf of Black owned businesses based in Washington, DC. When cable television started to expand in our cities, Marion decided that the DC franchise for cable would be awarded to a Black resident of DC. He also encouraged Mayor Coleman Young of Detroit to do the same. This was the beginning of Bob Johnson’s quest to build Black Entertainment Television. In Detroit, is was Don Barden’s entry to a very large business empire. From these two companies many Black millionaires would evolve.
Seeing the impact of his networking Black firms into the city’s procurement opportunities, Mayor Barry started encouraging all Black mayors to emulate what he and Coleman Young did for their cities. Harold Washington of Chicago, and various mayors of Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Los Angeles, Atlanta, San Francisco, etc. would step up to emulate what the genius of Marion Barry had done. Of course, there were a few who would be too timid to act in this fashion and their citizens would miss out on many opportunities. You will not find one Black businessperson who does not appreciate what Marion Barry stood for and will use his standard as a measurement for the performance of current mayors in their particular cities.
Marion was just a pleasant person with a continuous smile at all times. We had a fall summit in New Orleans after the Katrina tragedy. We were all surprised to see Mayor Marion Barry walking through the W Hotel to attend our event. He came at the invitation of one of our Board of Directors and all attendees enjoyed his presence and participation. Despite all of his ills via addiction and fast women, he remained focused on civic participation and the inclusion of Black business. We could see that trait shining like a new moon during our summit.