Marion Barry Is Dead

The four-term mayor of Washington, D.C., was an institution, even after a drug arrest and jail sentence.

Rogelio Solis/AP

Marion S. Barry Jr., the sharecropper's son and civil rights activist who became Washington, D.C.'s most flamboyant and divisive mayor for four terms, died early Sunday at the age of 78.

United Medical Center spokeswoman Natalie Williams said Mr. Barry arrived at the hospital around 12:30 a.m. and died at 1:46 a.m., following a brief stay at Howard University Hospital. No cause of death was given, but Barry had suffered many health problems over the years, including prostate cancer, diabetes, anemia and kidney ailments.

Among Washington's poorest residents, Barry was viewed as a symbol of hope for the attention he gave to poverty, often giving jobs—and sometimes cash—to the people who needed it most. His critics, however, complained of a level of cronyism that almost bankrupted the city.

On a national scale, Barry will likely be remembered for his 1990 arrest for smoking crack in a hotel room with a young woman, a video of which was widely distributed throughout the media. He was sentenced to six months in prison for the violation.

But Barry considered his legal troubles and personal failings as something positive for his constituents.

"I serve as an inspiration for those who are going through all kinds of things," Barry told The New York Times earlier this year. "Whatever storm they’re going through, they can learn from me."

Perhaps that's because Barry rose again. He returned to the D.C. Council in 1992 and two years later he won his fourth and final term as mayor. However, in 1995, as the city considered bankruptcy, Congress stripped Barry of much of his mayoral powers, leading him to not seek a fifth term. In 2004, he returned to the city council, where he was reelected in 2008 and 2012 by a constituency that still referred to him as "Mayor Barry."

Barry's ability to be both charismatic and divisive in equal parts was obvious even when he was a student at LeMoyne College in South Memphis, where, during his senior year, he took part in the Memphis bus desegregation case. His role in it led the NAACP executive director Roy Wilkins to say Barry had "the heart of a lion," while the president of his college, Hollis Price, said that, "Marion started to believe that he was sort of a messiah."

Washington residents and political insiders, alike, took to Twitter to offer their thoughts on the legacy of Barry.