As the first chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Marion Barry often looked to Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) for guidance and support. Despite the ideological differences that developed between SNCC and SCLC, Barry maintained a strong relationship with King throughout the 1960s.
Born in Itta Bena, Mississippi, on 6 March 1936, Marion Barry was the son of sharecroppers. Despite economic hardships, he graduated from LeMoyne College (1958) in Memphis, Tennessee, where he was chapter president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and was nearly expelled for denouncing a racist comment made by a trustee. Later, while pursuing a graduate degree in chemistry at Fisk University, Barry attended student workshops on nonviolence led by Vanderbilt divinity student James Lawson. In 1960 Barry played a key role in the student sit-ins at Nashville lunch counters.
In April 1960 Barry and fellow Nashville students Diane Nash and John Lewis joined other student protest leaders at a meeting in Raleigh, North Carolina, which resulted in the formation of SNCC. Barry was elected chairman of the organization. While SNCC was organized as an autonomous, student-led organization, the students depended upon SCLC for resources and Barry looked to King as a mentor. In a letter written to King shortly after a 1960 arrest in Atlanta, Barry praised the jailed leader’s commitment to the struggle: “Thanks to you for your deep commitment to the concept of no violence, and your vision of a free society which makes possible this student movement” (Papers 5:531).
Barry resigned as chairman of SNCC in the fall of 1960 but remained involved in the organization throughout the decade, helping to organize the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party challenge, and supporting protest campaigns in McComb, Mississippi; Knoxville, Tennessee; and Washington, D.C.
During his time in Washington, Barry became an advocate for the District’s poor, black communities. His career as an elected official began in the 1970s, when he served on the school board and city council. In 1978 he was elected mayor of the city, a position he held until 1990 when he resigned due to a drug conviction. Barry returned to the city council in 1992 and was elected to a fourth term as mayor in 1994.