Marion Barry, the "Mayor for Life" of Washington, D.C., known as much for his personal foibles as his political accomplishments, died over the weekend at age 78. Earlier this year, David Weigel sat down with Barry for an interview about his life and career. You can listen to that audio interview and read a complete text transcript below.
Listen to Episode No. 18 of the WeigelCast using the player below:
In this week's episode, Slate political reporter David Weigel speaks with Marion Barry, a four-term mayor of Washington, D.C. and current councilman. Barry recently published an autobiography, Mayor for Life: The Incredible Story of Marion Barry, Jr., co-written with novelist Omar Tyree. He discusses contemporary racism, the decriminalization of marijuana, and his own exploitation by “white reporters.”
Here is a complete transcript of their conversation:
David Weigel: In the book, you write about years of leaking stories about you and trying to get negative stories in the press. You write, you were surprised at how fast T-shirts appeared on the street saying, Bitch Set Me Up. That’s one thing that you’re famous for and you’re trying to correct that. How do you compartmentalize and deal with it?
Marion Barry: It’s hard, very hard. I had my flaws. I had my bad times. But the good news is that every time this has happened I’ve taken full responsibility for it. I don’t try to duck it, I don’t try to dodge it, I don’t try to bullshit about it. And the truth, that Dr. King said, truth crushed to the ground will rise again. And that’s what my life has been about.
Weigel: You’ve reacted negatively to Dream City, the Tom Sherwood/Harry Jaffe book, that being adapted. Explain why you reacted negatively to that.
Barry: Well, first of all, I’ve been exploited by a number of white reporters. Dream City is just a collection of newspaper articles, etc. I refused to interview with him, because I told him and Harry Jaffe, I’ll interview with you if you give some of the profits to my favorite charity. I’m not going to interview with you if you keep that money in your pocket like that. And so when they decided to sell the movie rights, I jumped right on it: Two white men exploited a black man. Some reporter asked me, “Why’d you say white men and a black man?” I said, “They’re white aren’t they?” That’s a fact—two white men trying to exploit a black man, I’m black. And so, I’m going to stay on that case. And I don’t like being exploited. I don’t like other people being exploited.
Weigel: In 1978, you won 47 percent of the white vote, and then decades later there’s this backlash from, not just I think reporters, there’s this way that race is covered in the media where if you mention it exists, there’s a backlash to even talking about that the status quo might be biased against some people. But how did that change, from getting 47 percent of the white vote to having this backlash all the time?
Barry: It changed programmatically. In America, racism still exists. No matter how much work we put on it—we’ve made a lot of progress—it still exists. It’s socialized that way. On the other hand, a lot of white people I know, applaud me for trying to … give opportunities to people who have not had opportunity before, and making our city a richer city and a more diverse city, and a city of not have-nots, but a city of everybody having something. That’s why.
Weigel: Talk about your gay marriage position, because in 2008 you say you would be open to the idea of voting for gay marriage recognition. In 2009, you opposed it, and then last year you said you wouldn’t mind presiding over some gay weddings. Did your thinking evolve on that, or what was behind the vote against and the activism in 2009?
Barry: First of all, gay marriage is not the only litmus test. When you look at Marion Barry’s record, I started the first movement to hire a gay person in my administration, Richard Maulsby, was in my cabinet. I just went to an affair last week, we celebrated the situation. I was one of the original pushers of gay pride. I had gay people and lesbian people in my administration. And so my record was clear. What I decided to do was to dissent. I dissented because my constituents, a whole bunch of them, were opposed to it. I supported … domestic partnership over their objections. I supported a whole bunch of gay rights over their objections. And this is one that they feel very strongly about, the black preachers and my black constituents. Unlike other council members, where you had more of a variety of people supporting it, I decided not to. That didn’t change my personal view. My personal view is very simple: What happens in your bedroom, it’s up to you. If you want to use gay marriage as an affectionate kind of thing you’re doing, do it. But in terms of that law, I decided to dissent. I’ve always been a strong supporter of gay and lesbian rights, of LGBT rights. And so the gay community, the lesbian community, the LGBT community, understood it. They didn’t like it. But that’s democracy.
Weigel: Some of the coverage of that at the time, it would always come up, criticism of you for weighing in on a moral issue when you’d made a mistake once that you’ve owned up to. And just one last question about that I had, is what do you think of the way the mayor of Toronto is treated in the media compared to the way you were treated? He’s treated more I think as a kind of clownish figure as opposed to …
Barry: He’s not connected to me. He doesn’t have my historical record of achievement in America. There’s no comparison. My record is so far better, etc. I understand what’s happening with him in terms of drug and alcohol. But he’s making a fool of himself—making a fool of himself. And using something, and he’s making a fool of himself. He shouldn’t use the fact that he’s abusing drugs as an excuse for being a fool. And I sympathize with him, I know what he’s going through, but I don’t agree with what he’s doing.
Weigel: The book has so many examples of just virulent racism from people when you’re working jobs in Mississippi to police yelling things at you from the street, that sort of behavior. How much racism is there still existing now? How does racism manifest now? How much is left?
Barry: You can’t measure racism. You can measure some of the effects of it. But people talking about this multi-racial society, the president’s multi-racial. That covered all the problems. The racism in this country, in America, is deep, very deep. In fact, if you look at our civil rights movement, look at everything that black people have achieved in this country, you had to take it. You had to take it. Nobody has given us anything of merit. Voting Rights Act—had to take it. … They go to jail, sit at the lunch counter. Even the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act. We had to fight for it, continue to fight for it. The Supreme Court ruled that one part of it was unconstitutional—have to fight for it. And I’m known as a fighter. I will fight hard for that which I believe in, and that which is good for the people, and that’s the reality. But don’t blame me for it—I’m not talking about you, but the society. You shouldn’t blame me for the racism. I didn’t create it, I didn’t bring it into being. It was brought into being because of the racist nature of the society. There are people at the Washington Post who don’t like me to point that out. Using race. But race is real. I would encourage them to get where I am and look at it from my perspective. It’s real.
Weigel: You write in the book about the crack wars and the surge of that. Why is it possible now to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana without risking a relapse and more crime, or encouraging the use of that drug?
Barry: First of all, the crack wars took all of us mayors, all of us governors, by surprise. We didn’t have any answers. The scourge moved so fast that we couldn’t do hardly anything. I tried, my chief tried, locking everybody up. That didn’t work. We tried treatment. That didn’t work. Because it’s an economic crime. These young people who are selling drugs out here are doing it to make money, some of it legitimately to go for the things they need, much of it going to themselves. And I understand it—I don’t agree with it. But the climate has changed in this country. Colorado has legalized marijuana. See, when white people start changing things, it changes. When black people try to change it, it doesn’t change. As simple as that. And so we’re now decriminalizing, Tommy Wells and I, worked on decriminalization, got it through the council. They were locking up hundreds and thousands of black boys in Washington for one or two bags of marijuana. Their whole record is stained for the rest of their life, they can’t get a job. And that’s just wrong to do. And so we made a correction in it. I’m proud of the fact that the majority of council members agree with us on it, and that’s great.
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