RIP Marion Barry, emblem of a very different Democratic Party

Chicago. 1996. Democratic National Convention. A memorable day at Jesse Jackson’s backyard party. Black political power at its nadir. Twelve years later — President Barack Obama. Marion Barry remembered.


Eighteen years ago this past summer, I was a young political reporter at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, for Loutisville Eccentric Observer in its freewheeling heyday. The many escapades of that week could fill a long chapter of a memoir. But one shall suffice.

My assignment was simple: find the leaders of the traditional liberal wing of the Democrats wherever they were cowering in the shadows of Bill Clinton’s Bridge to the 21st Century and take their temperature amid looming welfare reform, Wall Street boosterism, death penalty acceptance and other byproducts of Clinton’s DLC centrism.

After a memorable run-in with Ted Kennedy at the then unusual sight of a national figure addressing a gay rights gala, I found myself invited over to Jesse Jackson’s home where he was going to receive friends in the hours before his speech to the delegates — a speech that would come nowhere near the history making, conscience-rattling, tears-tugging speeches from 1988 or 1992,nor even his thunderous remarks to the Million Man March, where I saw his hold spellbound hundreds of thousands of people, but would nevertheless mark the last of his major DNC addresses.

I arrived on time which meant I was extremely early. Maybe five people are there other than some hired help. His wife is withdrawn and unpacking boxes inside as they had been on the road for some time. His son, the future congressman who would disappoint many, is in the backyard as folks begin to trickle in. Al Sharpton wanders in, still with the air of controversy in those days when memories of Tawana Brawley are strong and he hasn’t yet delivered his 2004 forty acres and a mule speech for his breakthrough DNC moment in 2004. Marion Barry, thin and smiling and disgraced but just ahead of a revival, walks in and the crowd swells. Eleanor Holmes Norton and other leaders are on hand, many I don’t recognize. I spend my time gathering my confidence speaking to the next mayor of DC.

Suddenly, Jesse Jr. is on the small stage with a. microphone. “We’re going to sing some funk,” he tells the crowd — though I should add these quotes are from a distant memory. “But I need some help. Al? Marion? Pop?”

... This post is excepted from its original form at, where it can be read in its entirety. -Michael