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Then & Now: Marion Barry

Then: Marion Barry addresses the public outside the courtroom of his 1990 trial.



Marion Barry
Justice and Rights

(CNN) -- In 1990, the FBI busted Washington, D.C., Mayor Marion Barry for crack cocaine. Today, the 68-year-old self-proclaimed "mayor for life" is back in politics, serving on the D.C. City Council.

"I've been knocked down," Barry told CNN. "Some people would say you fell down or knocked yourself down, but I got up!"

Barry has a long history of political comebacks, and his steely political sense was born out of a series of civil rights battles that energized him.

Barry was born in 1936, deep in cotton country, in Itta Bena, Mississippi. When he was young, Barry, his mother and two sisters moved to Memphis, Tennessee, where he grew up and would eventually attend school at LeMoyne College.

In 1960, the young man participated in a lunch counter sit-in in Nashville. The Washington Post reports he helped register voters and conducted workshops in non-violence while pursuing a doctorate in Chemistry at the University of Tennessee.

Soon, the young man from rural Mississippi was caught up in the burgeoning civil rights movement, and he moved to Washington, D.C., to became a leader in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. His opposition to racial discrimination resonated with the people of the district. Barry entered politics, winning an open school board seat and later a spot on the City Council. In 1978, Barry was elected mayor. He held that office until 1990.

During his 12-year tenure, Barry helped to rejuvenate the city's downtown area, sparking a construction boom. His administration also balanced the city's budget. One of Barry's distinctive initiatives was his District Youths Employment Act of 1979. The legislation guaranteed a summer job to all city youths who wanted one, regardless of their economic status.

"I think God gave me some talents [like] compassion, a good spirit, a good brain, a commitment to people," Barry told CNN. "A lot of elected officials don't like people, they really don't. I do."

In January 1990 Barry's political reign came to an abrupt halt when he was caught on video in an FBI sting operation smoking crack cocaine with a woman at the Vista Hotel. The incident -- played over and over on cable television -- produced what is perhaps the most memorable quote of Barry's long career: "The bitch set me up."

Barry was convicted on a charge of misdemeanor drug possession and served six months in prison.

Barry has many staunch supporters, who view him as an activist and a champion of the poor. In 1992 he was once again elected to the Washington, D.C., City Council, and two years later, elected mayor again.

His fourth term as the city's leader was overshadowed by allegations of financial wrongdoing, and Barry decided not to run again in 1998.

Barry's political appetite didn't allow him to stay out of the limelight for long. In 2004, he ran again for City Council and won, garnering more than 96 percent of the vote in Ward 8, an area of the city that has some of the highest poverty and unemployment rates.

As for his issues with drugs, Barry prefers to leave all that in the past, preferring, he says, to contemplate the future.

"I ought to be tired right now, after 40-some years of service, 68 years of age, but I'm not. I just got my second wind," he says.

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