Mississippi native Marion Barry was an early leader in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and later became a political leader in Washington, D.C. Born in Itta Bena on 6 March 1936 to Marion and Mattie Barry, Barry moved with his mother and sister to Memphis, Tennessee, at a young age. He graduated from the city’s Booker T. Washington High School in 1954 before earning a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from LeMoyne College (now LeMoyne-Owen College). Barry then moved to Nashville, Tennessee, to attend Fisk University, where he participated in one of James Lawson’s workshops on nonviolent direct action and became involved in the sit-in movement that ultimately desegregated the city’s lunch counters.
In 1960 Barry was one of the cofounders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and was elected its first chair. In that role, he represented SNCC at the 1960 Democratic National Convention, urging the Platform Committee to adopt a strong stance on the issues of segregation, fair employment, voting rights, white violence, and police misconduct. Later that year, after securing funds for SNCC and attending workshops on voter registration at the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee, Barry moved to McComb, Mississippi, to conduct workshops on nonviolent direct action and to organize the Pike County Nonviolent Movement. He encouraged McComb students to stage sit-ins and to protest the expulsion of their classmates, Brenda Travis and Ike Lewis, in retaliation for their civil rights activities.
Barry went on to participate in the Jackson Nonviolent Movement, before resigning as SNCC’s chair to pursue a doctorate at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. He maintained his ties to the organization, however, and led demonstrations to protest segregation in Knoxville and worked to garner support for the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party’s challenge to the state’s all-white delegation to the 1964 Democratic National Convention.
Barry subsequently moved to New York to manage a SNCC office before heading to Washington, D.C., in 1965 to spearhead the group’s efforts there. He helped to organize the White House Conference on Civil Rights and founded and directed the Free D.C. Movement, which sought self-government for the District. Barry resigned from SNCC but continued to work as an organizer, directing an antipoverty group, Pride, Inc. After Congress granted the District the power to hold its own elections, Barry served on the city’s first board of education and on the city council for several terms. In 1979, voters elected Barry the District’s second mayor, and he remained in that office until 1990, when he was convicted of a misdemeanor drug charge. In 1992 Barry was again elected to the city council, and in 1995 he again became mayor, serving until 1999. From 2005 until his death, he represented Ward 8 on the city council.
When Barry died on 23 November 2014 after years of health problems, he was celebrated as an innovative political figure with great popularity among African American voters in Washington, D.C., but was also remembered for his personal failings. The Boston Globe, for example, called him a “charismatic yet confounding politician.”
- Clayborne Carson, In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s (1981)
- John Dittmer, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (1994)
- Ernest M. Limbo, in The Human Rights Tradition in the Civil Rights Movement, ed. Susan Glisson (2006)
- Charles M. Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (1995)
- David Stout, Boston Globe (24 November 2014)
- Washington Post (23 November 2014); Howard Zinn, SNCC: The New Abolitionists (2002)