Former Washington, D.C., mayor Marion Barry died this weekend at the age of 78. Though many today remember him for his work in local politics, Barry was an activist and an involved citizen long before his first stint as mayor of the nation’s capital.
Barry was born to Mississippi sharecroppers and raised in segregated Memphis, where everyday life was filled with reminders of racial divisions (he once asked his mother what the difference was between colored water and white water). He became an Eagle Scout and graduated with a degree in chemistry from LeMoyne College in Memphis. But it was as a 24-year-old graduate student at Fisk University in Nashville that Barry’s natural leadership began to impress those around him, as he organized a campus chapter of the NAACP and helped plan lunch counter sit-ins. Barry was part of a group of student leaders who established the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and became its first chairman.
Barry’s story is told in the Newseum’s “Make Some Noise: Students and the Civil Rights Movement” exhibit, alongside other important figures in the student movement like Diane Nash, Stokely Carmichael and John Lewis. His and their contributions to advancing civil rights in the United States are a lasting legacy that deserves to be remembered for generations to come.