Marion Barry, 4-Term Mayor and D.C. Councilmember, Dies at 78

A "Thank You" card to Marion Barry sits on the steps of the John A. Wilson Building, DC's City Hall, on Nov. 23. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
A "Thank You" card to Marion Barry sits on the steps of the John A. Wilson Building, DC's City Hall, on Nov. 23. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted November 23, 2014 at 11:14am

Former D.C. Mayor and Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry died Sunday at the age of 78.  

Barry’s family did not indicate the cause of his death in a statement released Sunday morning, but said Barry passed away at United Medical Center early Sunday after having previously been hospitalized at Howard University Hospital on Saturday.  

“Marion was not just a colleague but also was a friend with whom I shared many fond moments about governing the city,” Mayor Vincent C. Gray said in a statement. “He loved the District of Columbia and so many Washingtonians loved him.” Barry was first elected to the D.C. Council in 1974, the first election after Congress established D.C.’s legislative branch in the 1973 Home Rule Act. In 1977, Barry ran for mayor and served three terms before being arrested for cocaine possession in 1990 and sentenced to six months in prison. But he made a political comeback, winning a seat on the city council in 1992. He went on to be elected for a fourth term as D.C. mayor in 1994.  

After leaving office after the 1998 election, the fiery politician ventured back into public life when he successfully ran again for the city council in 2004. He represented Ward 8 ever since.  

Marion Barry interviewed about his book at an event in D.C. He Died Sunday at age 78. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Barry was interviewed about his book at an event in D.C. in June. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

In early November, Mayor-elect Muriel Bowser named Barry as a member of her transition team. Bowser said in a statement released on Twitter Sunday, “Mayor Marion Barry gave a voice to those who need it most and lived his life in service to others. I — along with all Washingtonians — am shocked and deeply saddened by this passing, and we send our condolences to Cora Masters Barry, Chris Barry, and the entire Barry family. He has been a part of my family for decades, and he will continue to be an example to me and so many others.”  

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., also remembered Barry in a statement released Sunday morning.  

“From my earliest encounter with Marion Barry, when he was the first chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee until I came back home and found him mayor of my home town, I have seen Marion take hold and write his signature boldly on his own life and times and on the life of the nation’s capital,” Norton said. “Many took his struggle to personify in some way their own, endearing him and making him a larger-than-life figure as he became a creator of post-home-rule D.C.”  

President Barack Obama released a statement celebrating the life of the District's mayor for life: "Michelle and I were saddened to hear of the passing of Marion Barry. Marion was born a sharecropper's son, came of age during the Civil Rights movement, and became a fixture in D.C. politics for decades. As a leader with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Marion helped advance the cause of civil rights for all. During his decades in elected office in D.C., he put in place historic programs to lift working people out of poverty, expand opportunity, and begin to make real the promise of home rule. Through a storied, at times tumultuous life and career, he earned the love and respect of countless Washingtonians, and Michelle and I extend our deepest sympathies to Marion's family, friends and constituents today."  

There is no word yet on funeral services, but Gray said he would work with Barry's family and the city to "plan official ceremonies worthy of a true statesman of the District of Columbia."  

D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson released a statement that said the city was planning services and that Barry would lie in state. He also praised his colleague's civil rights legacy and influence on the council through the years: " He championed policies to help those who were most in need: 'the last, the lost, and the least,' as he put it. Most recently he fought to restore benefits to families on welfare. It was issues like this where he was persistent and passionate. His voice will be missed. There isn't a member of the Council who has not benefited from knowing and working with Mr. Barry -- whether it was his skill to connect personally with residents, his persistence, his political acumen, or his ability to go from opponent to ally depending on the issue. Mr. Barry taught us about fighting for justice and fighting for the poor. It now becomes our responsibility to keep his legacy alive."  

Barry had recently taped an interview with Oprah Winfrey for the program "Where Are They Now?" and the family said the interview will air 9 p.m Sunday, as scheduled. Barry is expected to discuss his involvement in the Civil Rights Movement as well as his book, "Mayor for Life," which was released in June.  

At an event in D.C. in June, Barry said the book was "the truth: the good, the bad, the ugly.”  

In the foreword, Barry thanked the people of Washington for always supporting him. "I am so grateful for the thousands of Washingtonians and all of the many people across the country who've been with me through the best of times and worst of times," he wrote. "I could have NEVER done this alone. I can never thank you enough. I love you all!!!!!"