So many people wanted to honor Marion Barry this afternoon that his Walter E. Washington Convention Center memorial faced an unusual challenge: actually getting Barry buried. As tribute after tribute stretched over the time limit, the Rev. Willie Wilson, acting as emcee for the day, fretted that the memorial would go so late that the mourners wouldn’t arrive at the cemetery until after dark.
The memorial eventually finished only an hour late, which, given the many officials who needed attention and Barry’s own historically relaxed attitude towards scheduling, comes off like a minor miracle. Five hours after the memorial began, Barry’s casket left the convention center to be buried at Congressional Cemetery, leaving behind an image of a man who was celebrated despite his many failings.
Cora Masters Barry, Barry’s wife, described her husband as a simple man who would carry his belongings in a shopping bag, much to her aggravation. Before they separated more than a decade ago, Masters Barry banned her husband from going to the grocery store because he would spend too much time talking and giving out money. (Apparently, there wasn’t much money to give out by the end—-at one point in the memorial, Wilson hit up the crowd for donations to Barry’s memorial fund, saying that Barry had left no estate behind.)
Barry’s memorial inspired a number of other speeches. The Rev. Jesse Jackson, delivering Barry’s final eulogy, imagined him updating civil rights icons on the struggle after reaching heaven. Near Mayor Muriel Bowser promised to continue Barry’s summer jobs program, while mogul Don Peebles said Barry was responsible for his fortune and that of many other African Americans’.
D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson aimed to lighten the mood with a story about Barry trying to arrest Mendelson, then a neighborhood activist. (Barry attorney Fred Cooke, in his own speech, listed the failure to make the charges against Mendelson stick as one of his career’s disappointments).
Christopher Barry, dressed in an unusual black and white jacket-and-hat combo, praised his father while still noting his absences from his life. At one point, the Nation of Islam’s Louis Farrakhan told Christopher Barry that his father was a man meant for a “higher calling” than just raising his family.
Will the younger Barry get his own chance at that “higher calling?”Wilson Building superlawyer David Wilmot certainly thinks so; he used part of his speech to nod towards potential aspirations for the Ward 8 Council seat for the 34-year-old Barry.
The most rousing speeches faced Barry’s arrest for smoking crack in the Vista Hotel head-on. Wilson, a longtime associate of Barry’s and sometimes foe, denounced the “self-righteous religious robots” who looked down on Barry.
“Marion Barry understood that our lives are marked by sins as well as virtues,” Wilson said.
But Farrakhan’s speech early in the program won the crowd. Farrakhan recounted being asked by a reporter, in the aftermath of the Vista Hotel sting, how an upstanding man like himself could support a man who cheated on his wife and used drugs.
“I said, who are you talking about?” Farrakhan said. “John Fitzgerald Kennedy?”
Later, Farrakhan asked “the holy ones” in the crowd to stand up. Nearly everyone sat down.
Despite the many speeches from District bigwigs, Democratic Rep. Bennie Thompson from Barry’s native Mississippi had the best explanation for why thousands came out in dismal weather to remember Barry.
“Marion Barry is an example of what can happen when the system tries to choose our heroes for us,” Thompson said. “And the people push back.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery