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Will the next Marion Barry please stand up

By Harry C. Alford
On December 8, 2014

Barry left a legacy that touched many lives in DC, Maryland and Virginia
Credit: Robert Eubanks/District Chronicles

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, D.C., for the first time back in 1964.  It was shocking to me as I never realized that D.C. 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 in 1965, 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. He 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, D.C.  Barry 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, D.C. 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, D.C. When cable television started to expand in our cities, he decided that the D.C. franchise for cable would be awarded to a Black resident of D.C. 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 Young did for their cities.  Harold Washington of Chicago, and various mayors of Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Los Angeles, Atlanta, San Francisco, 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 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.  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. He was as serious about the economic development of Black communities as other greats like Parren J. Mitchell, Arthur A. Fletcher, Booker T. Washington and many others who are my heroes.  Yes, Marion Barry is a hero of mine.

There aren’t too many like him and I believe we should be a little more impatient with our elected officials who do not understand their power and the ability to use it to the benefit of their constituents.  Ask your current mayor how many Black businesses have expanded as a result of his/her leadership.  Most will not be able to answer that.  When that happens you should encourage them to emulate the great Marion Barry.  The majority press, FBI and Congress did their best to destroy this man for what he did for the Black economy.  That is the price for Black leadership in this nation and it is a price our leaders must pay. Farewell Mayor Barry. You made your mark and will be sorely missed. 

Alford is co-founder, president/CEO of the National Black Chamber of Commerce. Email him at

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