Former DC Mayor Marion Barry dead at 78

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Story highlights

  • Marion Barry was elected four times as Washington's mayor
  • Barry was sentenced to six months in prison after a 1990s drug conviction
  • Cornell West: Barry "had his flaws" but was a "great freedom fighter" for the poor
Former Washington Mayor Marion Barry is dead, a Washington hospital spokeswoman said early Sunday. He was 78.
Barry was elected four times as the city's chief executive and was a council member in the District of Columbia for 15 years. The one-time leader of the city's old Board of Education, Barry was, at one time, revered nationally as a symbol of African-American political leadership and beloved for his prowess at local politics. But his professional accomplishments were often overshadowed by bad behavior in his personal life that made for startling headlines.
Barry was infamously busted in 1990 on law enforcement surveillance tape smoking crack cocaine in a drug sting involving the FBI and Washington police. That footage was televised. Barry was convicted of possession and served six months in prison.
But he made a tremendous political comeback.
Barry reclaimed his seat in the mayor's office in 1995.
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In 2002, police said they found "apparent" traces of marijuana and cocaine in Barry's car but didn't arrest him.
He was re-elected to the City Council in 2004. In 2006, he was suspected in separate incidents of driving under the influence and driving with a suspended license. He was found not guilty of the DUI charge, and the state said a computer glitch erroneously reported that Barry's license had been suspended.
In 2009, he was arrested on a charge of stalking, which prosecutors later dropped.
"Who can better help our city recover than someone who himself has gone through recovery?" he once asked confidently.
Former Harvard professor and civil rights leader Cornell West said on CNN on Sunday that Barry "had his flaws" but was a "great freedom fighter" for the poor and disenfranchised.
The Washington Post noted that he "plowed hundreds of millions of tax dollars into job training and employment programs, senior centers and social-welfare endeavors. Rank-and-file workers were hired by the thousands to serve under Mr. Barry's newly-appointed supervisory corps of African American middle and top level managers."
He ardently promoted African-American-owned enterprises.
His recently released autobiography, "Mayor for Life: The Incredible Story of Marion Barry, Jr.," recalls a quote that underscored Barry's ability to spotlight inequalities in America.
"Why should blacks feel elated about seeing men walk on the moon when millions of poor blacks and whites don't have enough money to buy food to eat on earth?" he said during President Richard Nixon's administration.
"In Washington, I have worked hard for the people and I've been loved by the people," Barry said in a July interview on CNN. "I didn't get elected because of my name. I got elected because I work hard for the people."
President Barack Obama said in a statement that he and first lady Michelle Obama were "saddened" to hear of Barry's death. The President recalled that Barry was born a sharecropper's son and came of age during the Civil Rights movement.
"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," the statement said.
"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."