Full disclosure: I’m divorced. I have hundreds of friends, family and acquaintances who’d willingly testify to my overall good character but I’m uncertain that my ex-wife and her family would extend such grace. I suspect they might be slightly more eager to tell you of my shortcomings and more dangerously, attribute innocent actions to ill intent. I would not want my ex’s family charged with writing my biography. Sadly, this is precisely the way we treat the history of the Black Panther Party.
Crack cocaine was in the room. As agents swarmed Marion Barry he uttered, “Bitch set me up…I shouldn’t have come up here…goddamn bitch.” Yes, that is the man Baltimore needs for mayor. The city is still smoldering from the fires set ablaze after the death of Freddie Gray. From those embers, DeRay Mckesson, a Black Lives Matter activist, has emerged as a candidate for mayor. On February 3rd the The New York Times wrote that, “At the center of the mayor’s race will be issues of race and policing in a predominantly black city.” For Baltimore’s sake, I hope they’re wrong. If that is Mckesson’s platform, I certainly hope he doesn’t win.
The latest data available from the American Community Survey indicated that only 59% of black males between the ages of 25 and 54 are working in Baltimore. For whites, the number is 79%. The median household income for blacks is around $33,000, white households bring home about twice that. Washington- also overwhelmingly black at the time- was once a symbol for all that could go wrong in a city: drugs, crime and poverty. It was Marion Barry who laid the foundations for the city’s turnaround. Barry did not accomplish this by focusing on police violence, although the issue is an important one. Rather, it was all about the money.
Don Peebles runs the largest black-owned development company in the nation. Starting from an appointment from Barry to the Property Tax Appel Board, Peebles built a $4 billion empire in real estate. As Peebles pointed out at Barry’s funeral, Barry created the black middle class in Washington. When Barry was elected mayor in 1979, minority businesses received 3% of city contracts; that is, in a predominantly black city. When Barry started his third term as mayor, minority businesses were receiving nearly fifty percent of the city’s contracts. Peebles went on to point out that to the present day, minority businesses in New York City only receive three percent: exactly where DC was when Barry started as mayor in 1979.
That shift was not accidental. In a 1986 interview with Black Enterprise Barry said, “For blacks, it is much easier to get political power than it is to get economic power.” He also added that “Blacks in politics should see to it that more economic power is distributed to the black community. As one of those with political power, I feel that my job is to see to it that this power is achieved.” Barry’s administration required all city agencies to ensure 35% of the dollar volume of their contracts went to minority firms. Close to fifty minority firms performed more than a third of the city’s construction contracts for development projects. No, Barry didn’t change black Washington overnight- big ships don’t turn on a dime- however, in a majority black city, Barry took tax dollars from blacks and put those dollars back to work for them. In so doing, Barry laid the foundation for people like Don Peebles to create wealth and opportunity for others. Parenthetically, many have a problem with routing tax dollars from blacks to contracts for black businesses. Oddly enough, they see no issue with black tax dollars going to white firms, in predominantly black cities.
Meanwhile in Baltimore, a Baltimore Sun article from October 2015 highlighted that “City officials said they do not know how many contracts now go to small businesses” or “how much those contracts are worth.” To be fair, that article was written to announce changes to benefit small, women and minority owned firms in the area. Even so, it shows just how misplaced the focus has been for Baltimore City leaders for some time. It shows, clearly, that the next mayor has much work to do and simply focusing on matters of criminal justice reform or street activism simply won’t do.
Yes, Marion Barry did start as an activist but he matured to see the larger picture and more importantly, what his political platform could do to benefit blacks in Washington economically. There is no magic formula: tax dollars in, city contracts out. To whom those contracts go, so also does millions in wealth. The Democratic primary for Baltimore mayor is April 26th. What will the candidates choose to focus on? How do they envision the mayoral chair serving the needs of the people? They should carefully study Marion Barry.