MARION BARRY: THE MAN WHO COULD HAVE BEEN KING!
I remember when Marion Barry blew into Washington, DC like one of those Midwestern hurricanes in 1965. He came in as the first DC Chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). He came with the credentials of being involved with the Black Civil Rights Movement in Tennessee, first as an organizer in the Nashville Student Sit-ins.
When he arrived in Washington in 1965 I had just returned to my hometown after spending two years chasing my dreams of playing in the NFL without success. I was home looking for a job when my friend Petey Green alerted me that the United Planning Organization (UPO), a self-help community oriented organization was hiring. Petey knew the Director, Jim Banks and told me to meet him at the 11th & U Street NW office the next morning.
UPO hired three Neighborhood Workers for the Shaw/Cardozo community. Petey Greene, H. Rap Brown and me. The rest is community and media history. That same year the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee decided to make Washington, DC its home base—enter Marion Barry.
The late Petey Greene would make his mark as a legendary community and radio/television personality and H. Rap Brown would follow in the footsteps of Marion Barry as Chairman of SNCC. Brown is now serving a life sentence in Georgia for the shooting death of a State Trooper and Marion died on Sunday November 23, 2014.
I am “The Last Man Standing!”
Marion would parlay his civil rights and community involvement activities into a political power base base that will never be seen again in the Nation’s Capital. He was the first civil rights activist to become mayor of a major American city. In 1967, his path to political power was enhanced when he and his future wife, Mary Treadwell, co-founded Pride, Inc., a Department of Labor-funded program to provide job training to unemployed black men. Marion used Pride, Inc., as a springboard to a seat on the DC School Board, City Council and Mayor for Life!
Pride was the brainchild of a NE street dude by the name of Rufus “Catfish” Mayfield. Mayfield’s childhood friend Clarence Booker was shot and killed by a white police officer. His crime, he had stolen a pack of cookies on the wrong side of the tracks. In a brief chase and confrontation with the police officer, his life ended.
Booker was unarmed (Ferguson/Michael Brown). Mayfield and Booker were both from my old neighborhood, a NE housing project called Parkside. Thanks to a grant given to the DC Recreation Department by UPO to hire additional Roving Leaders, I was hired by the department to work on the staff of the Youth Gang Task Force.
I was assigned to the scene of the crime to help quell the violence that might result from this senseless shooting of a black teenager. There was an outcry of racism because of the recent brutality directed by the DC Police Department against the black community. The federal government intervened and made a deal with Rufus “Catfish” Mayfield to provide job training for unemployed black youth. Pride, Inc. was born and the organization hired hundreds of teenagers to clean littered streets in DC. Mayfield was not a learned individual and brought Marion to the table for some direction—before he knew it he was on the outside looking in and Marion Barry never looked back.
Petey Greene and I were very territorial when it came to our hometown. H. Rap Brown won us over with his down to earth personality but when we encountered Marion it was like ships passing in the night.
Marion went on to become a three term City Councilman. While serving in March 1977 he was shot as a group of Hanifi Muslims took over the District Building. He lived to tell about it. Against all odds, Barry went on to become a two term mayor in the Nation’s Capital. In 1984 Barry gave the presidential nomination speech for civil rights leader Jesse Jackson at the Democratic National Convention.
There are people in the media who are often heard saying, “You either loved Marion or you hated him, there was no middle ground.” I beg to differ, I didn’t love Marion but I did not hate him either. He was a bright individual with a hard head that would not listen to sound advice. The media people who thought they knew Marion didn’t have a clue. He used them and beat them like a drum. He had them thinking that they had the inside story or scoop over one of their colleagues by remembering their first names.
Marion knew that local DC reporters such as Karen Gray Houston, Tom Sherwood, Pat Collins, Joe Madison, Maureen Bunyan, Courtland Milloy and Bruce Johnson had no clue about the black community. He knew these media types only became experts on the black community after they became columnist and television/radio personalities. Marion had the upper hand because all of them followed him into DC.
In 1990, Barry was videotaped smoking crack cocaine in a hotel room in NW DC. This later became known as “The Bitch Set Me Up” heard around the world. The media “know-it-alls” had no clue of the upcoming sting.
The irony is that he was forewarned by yours truly. In the summer of 1989 I ran into the only guy in his entourage that I think knew the definition of integrity and loyalty. Officer William Stays was his Driver/Security Guard and a class act. He had the Mayor’s back.
Officer Stays was sitting in the car in the Faces Restaurant parking lot on that summer evening when I approached him. Faces was where the so-called “in-crowd” hung out during the week and weekends to escape the rigors of the business world and politics. You could always find Marion there with members of his inner-circle. I asked Officer Stays to go and tell Marion I needed to see him in the parking lot right away. Stays never asked, “What was so important” He just when in and brought Marion back out with him.
I told Marion that there was a FBI sting being organized to catch him in a compromising position and I thought it was best for him to step back for a moment.
The next words out of his mouth, 25 years later still have me shaking my head.
He said, “Harold I appreciate your concern but I got my bases covered.” As he walked back into the restaurant I went over to Officer Stays who was standing outside of the car. It was then I told him about my concerns and Marion’s response, he just shook his head and said, ‘Harold what else can you do?’ We shook hands and said “Good night” and six months later “The Bitch Set Him Up.”
My “Deep Throat” source was an undercover FBI agent out of Newark, New Jersey. We met on the U Street corridor during the riots and we became close friends. He would later leave the city and become an FBI Director in one of our urban cities (retired).
Marion Barry avoided coming on my radio show “Inside Sports.” I knew his hangouts and the dubious characters he hung out with. Even though we were like passing ships Marion and I shared a lot of moments away from the media spotlight.
He loved sports but he could not play dead. I could beat him with my left hand and the other hand tied behind my back. His tennis instructor was my college roommate and teammate at Winston-Salem State University, the late Dr. Arnold McKnight. He would let me know where he and Marion would be hitting balls and I would show up and beat them both. Marion and I would run into each other at the Hillcrest Heights tennis courts located near his home on Suitland, Road, SE.
Dr. McKnight was also the DC Boxing Commissioner and as you know Marion was a part of the Riddick Bowe championship years. One day Marion and I were at the Hillcrest Tennis Courts hitting some balls just before the second Riddick Bowe vs. Evander Holyfield fight. He started talking about how Bowe was going to take out Holyfield in their rematch. I took the bait because everyone knew he was talking at me.
Riddick Bowe could have easily gone down in boxing history as one of the all time great champions. But he had too many distractions around him (Rock Newman, Marion and Cora Masters, Dick Gregory, Willie Wilson, etc). He had one of the all time great boxing trainers in his corner in Eddie Futch. Riddick Bowe would not train and would not listen. He was overweight. Marion was not aware that I knew all the confusion surrounding Bowe. There was one thing you could count on with Evander Holyfield–he was going to be in boxing shape.
I finally said to Marion, “What do you want to bet man?” His response, “Make it easy on yourself.” I knew Marion loved to gamble, so my response, “Lets bet $1,000.” He said, “Oh no.” I then countered with $500 and again he said “No.” He finally said, “$100” and I said, “Bet.” We shook hands on the deal. To make a long story short, Holyfield beat Bowe and it took me two months to collect my $100 from Marion. But one day I walked into Faces for lunch and there he was. Before I could get over to him he had reached in his pocket and torn off a money order for $100. His parting words to me were “How did you know?” I said, “Inside Sports.” Marion was not a bad guy and I really liked him but his head was always between his legs.
The Washington, DC drug culture is a very small community and Marion’s substance abuse was well known along with members of his inner-circle.
Kids In Trouble, Inc. had Santa’s Helpers with names like, Slippery Jackson, Bob Wayne, Philadelphia Jake, Dog Turner, Zack, Happy, Nook, Cornell. These guys had a laundry list of entertainers, politicians and media personalities with drug abuse problems.
I was not surprised when Marion called WRC TV 4 News Anchor Jim Vance for assistance and advice. Jim had been a main stay when it came to my community endeavors and my tennis partner, but it all came crashing down in 1978. One of my street contacts brought a check to me written by Vance for the drugs. Again, I was not surprised because the word had already filtered down to me. It was not a problem, because none of my guys had ever tried to involve me in their substance abuse activities so I became like the 3 Little Monkeys, “I saw no evil, I spoke no evil and I heard no evil.” My street contact really liked Vance but he said to me and I understood exactly where he was coming from, “Man I cannot tell this brother to step back because I am in business, but I think it would be better coming from you.”
That night I took the check up to TV 4 and waited for my friend to finish the 11:00 news. When he came out of the station I called him over to my car and gave him the check explaining he needed to re-group. He took the check and stopped speaking to me. He didn’t speak to me again until 3 years ago (1978-2010) during a tribute to sportscaster Glenn Harris at Howard University.
It was while he was paying tribute to Glenn that I discovered where his head really was. He thanked Glenn for sticking by him during his trial and tribulations with drugs and had not left him blowing in the wind as some other friend! I could not believe my ears; it finally hit me he was talking about me. His words reminded me of vocalist Nancy Wilson’s classic “Guess Who I Saw Today—I Saw You!” That was the way it hit me!
My thinking at the time was to take the check for the drugs up to the station; I thought I was trying to save the life and career of a dear friend. The death of Marion Barry and his reaching out to Jim Vance has allowed me to get this heavy load off of my shoulders and off of my chest.
As I continue to reflect back, I recall Marion, on the Saturday before he was to start serving his 6 month jail sentence made “Inside Sports” his last media stop. I owe the thanks to my roommate, Dr. Arnold McKnight. McKnight had called me on Friday evening and said, “Marion wants to be on your show tomorrow.” My response, “Bring him on!” I never thought he would show up, but he did.
I started the show the way I did every Saturday. I gave the sports quiz and then turned around to see McKnight and Marion coming into the station. Marion had this big smile on his face and said as he entered the studio “You thought I was not coming didn’t you?” I took a commercial break and thanked him for coming.
When I came out of commercial break and introduced him, the first thing out of his mouth was “There is one thing you can count on when it comes to Harold Bell and that is you are going to get the truth.” When he said that I decided I was not going to chastise him.
When the show ended I wished him and reminded to stay strong and I would keep him in prayer. His last words were, “I wish now that I had listened to you!”
Marion could have been the greatest black politician in the history of Black America, but he would not listen. But in the end—he did it his way.