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Fri, 03.06.1936

Marion Barry, Activist, and Politician born

Marion Barry

*Marion Barry was born on this date 1936.  He was a Black activist and politician.  

Marion Shepilov Barry Jr. was born in rural Itta Bena, Mississippi, the third child of Mattie Cummings and Marion Barry.  His father died when he was four years old, and a year later his mother moved the family to Memphis, Tennessee, where her employment prospects were better.  His mother married David Cummings, a butcher, and together they raised eight children.  

The first time Barry noticed racial issues was when he had to walk to school while the white students were assigned a school bus to ride. The schools were segregated, as were public facilities.  He first began his spirit of civil rights activism when he was a paperboy in Memphis. The paper he worked for organized a contest in which any boy who gained 15 new customers could win a trip to New Orleans. Barry and a couple of the other black paperboys reached the quota of 15 new customers yet weren't not allowed to go on the trip to New Orleans, a segregated city. The paper said it could not afford to hire two buses to satisfy the state's segregation rules.

Barry decided to boycott his paper route until they agreed to send the Black paperboys on a trip. After the paper offered the Black paperboys a chance to go to St. Louis, Missouri on a trip, because it was not a segregated city, Barry resumed his paper route.  He had a number of other jobs as a child, including picking cotton, delivering and selling newspapers, and bagging groceries. While in high school, Barry worked as a waiter at the American Legion post and, at age 17, earned the rank of Eagle Scout.  Growing up on Latham Street near South Parkway, Marion Barry attended Florida Elementary and graduated from Booker T. Washington High.  

In 1958, Barry graduated from LeMoyne–Owen College, in Memphis. In his junior year, the racial injustices he had seen started to come together. He and his friends went to a segregated fairground in Memphis and went at a time reserved for whites because they wanted to see the science exhibit. When they were close to the exhibit, a policeman stopped them and asked them to leave. Barry and his friends left without protest. At that time, Barry did not know enough about his race, or why they were treated poorly, but he resented the incident. Barry became more active in the NAACP campus chapter, serving as president.  It is sometimes said that his early civil rights efforts earned him the nickname "Shep", in reference to Soviet politician Dmitri Shepilov after which Barry began using Shepilov as his middle name.  

In 1958, at LeMoyne-Owens, he criticized a college trustee for racist remarks.  While a senior and the president of the NAACP chapter, Barry heard of Walter Chandler the only white member on LeMoyne-Owen's board of trustees making comments that black people should be treated as a "younger brother, not as an adult". Barry wrote a letter to LeMoyne's president objecting to the comments and asking if Walter Chandler could be removed from the board. A friend of Barry's was the editor of the school newspaper, the Magician, and told Barry to run the letter in the paper. From there, the letter made it to the front page of Memphis' conservative morning paper, Barry was nearly expelled.  Barry earned an M.S. in organic chemistry from Fisk University in 1960. He was a member of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity.  While in graduate school at Fisk, Barry was arrested several times while participating in the Nashville sit-ins to desegregate lunch counters and other Civil Rights Movement episodes.  After graduating from Fisk, Barry continued to work in the Civil Rights Movement, focusing on the elimination of the racial segregation of bus passengers.

In 1960, Barry was elected as the first chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). He helped develop an organizing project in McComb, Mississippi. The project was both voter registration and a direct-action endeavor. Barry said he and other activists lived with the local people in order to stay safe, as well as to learn what it was like to live there. They could use that information to organize the members of the SNCC accordingly.  Barry began doctoral studies at the University of Kansas but soon quit the program.  He contemplated law school to help with his activism, but decided against it, because of the Vietnam War and he did not want to be drafted.  He decided to go to the University of Tennessee on a graduate fellowship, an integrated educational institution.  He began doctoral chemistry studies at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, the only African American in the program.  When learned that he was prohibited from tutoring white children, and his wife Blantie Evans was not allowed to work at the white school, he left the program in favor of his new duties at SNCC.  

Barry married Effi Slaughter, his third wife, just after announcing his candidacy for mayor in 1978.  He gave the presidential nomination speech for Jesse Jackson at the 1984 Democratic National Convention.  Barry served as the second mayor of the District of Columbia from 1979 to 1991, and again as the fourth mayor from 1995 to 1999.  The couple had one son, Marion Christopher Barry, who died of a drug overdose on August 14, 2016.  The couple separated in November 1990, soon after he was caught on videotape smoking crack cocaine with an ex-model and propositioning her for sex.  They divorced in 1993, but she returned to Washington and supported him in his successful bid for a city council seat in 2004.  Barry married Cora Masters on January 8, 1993.  Masters was a political science professor at the University of the District of Columbia and his former spokeswoman.  Effi Slaughter died in 2007, after an 18-month battle with acute myeloid leukemia.  

Marion Barry died at United Medical Center in Washington, D.C., on November 23, 2014, from cardiac arrest, aged 78, he was buried at Washington's Congressional Cemetery.  Despite his history of political and legal controversies, Barry was a popular and influential figure in Washington, D.C. The alternative weekly Washington City Paper nicknamed him "Mayor for life", a designation that remained long after Barry left the mayoralty.  The Washington Post once stated that "to understand the District of Columbia, one must understand Marion.  

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