[Courtland Cox was active in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee [SNCC] while a student at Howard University in DC. He knew Marion Barry, the first president of SNCC and was living in DC. He helped with the 1978 campaign and entered the first Barry Administration as Director of the Minority Business Opportunity Commission (MBOC).]
Maulsby: Courtland, tell us about your background, where you came from, where you went to school. How did you end up in Washington, DC?
Cox: I came to Howard University in 1960 from New York, and between the period of 1960 and 1968 I spent a lot of time with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee [SNCC], which did a lot of voter registration and other direct action kinds of things in the South. From 1960 to 1964 I attended Howard University and during the summers, I would organize for human and civil rights. In 1963, I moved to New York City to help organize the March on Washington and then returned to Washington. After leaving school in 1964, I joined the SNCC staff and I worked on the Mississippi Summer Project and in 1965 thru 1967 I worked in voter registration and political organizing in Alabama.
Maulsby: When did you move here finally?
Cox: I finally moved to Washington in about 1968. That's when we opened up the Drum and Spear Bookstore and Drum and Spear Press.
Maulsby: Where was that located?
Cox: The Drum and Spear Bookstore was located at 14th and Fairmont Street. In fact, the City has a little plaque on the building commemorating the Drum and Spear Bookstore.
Maulsby: When did you meet Marion Barry?
Cox: I met Marion Barry maybe 1961-1962, over 50 years ago, 53 years ago. We were both field secretaries for SNCC working in the South doing a number of things. In the early 1960's, Jim Foreman, the executive director for SNCC, sent Marion to Washington to help raise funds for the organization. He did raise funds for the organization; however, Marion became increasingly involved in the politics of Washington and eventually became a full time political activist and community leader.
Maulsby: When you first knew Marion, did you have any sense that he was going to someday be interested in electoral politics?
Cox: Well, Marion and I were on opposite sides of the debate that went on in SNCC.
Maulsby: Tell us about that.
Cox: There were two sides to the debate. One side emphasized that SNCC was part of a larger movement and the other side asserted that SNCC was first an organization. If SNCC was part of the larger Movement, it would focus more on challenging the status quo and less concerned with organizational structures and responsibilities. I was viewed as being on that side of those in the organization who saw SNCC more as part of a larger movement and I was less concerned about the day-to-day operations of maintaining an organization.
Marion, on the other hand, was viewed as being on the side of SNCC as an organization that would maintain structure, have accountability, have reports, and so forth. I think my earliest memories of Marion was the on-going discussion among SNCC veterans as to which path that the organization would travel, whether it would be part of a larger movement for human rights or whether it would focus on building a civil right organization.
Maulsby: And which side won out?
Cox: Well, actually, I would say that at the end of the day, those who focused on SNCC as part of a larger movement for human rights continued beyond SNCC the civil rights organization. SNCC lasted until 1968-69 as a formal organization.
When I met Marion, I was 21, 22, and he was four or five years older than me. And that was a big difference. A lot of people in SNCC were 18, 19, 20. Julian Bond, who just passed, was 20 years old. We were generally between 17 and 21. And if you were 25 and above, you were a little on the older side. If you got to be 30, boy, that was really old. A different perspective at this point.
After SNCC ceased to function as a formal organization, SNCC veterans were growing older and growing up, and they began to move in various different directions in terms of their lives. Marion started to use the geography and the platform of Washington, DC to become involved in civil and political actions. Marion engaged in multiple activities here in Washington. He protested O. Roy Chalk's [owner of the DC bus system] segregated bus systems and he was involved in trying to get the African-American youth trained for the job market. Interestingly enough, Marion brought the SNCC movement philosophy to all of his Washington civic and political activities.
By 1969, SNCC veterans having engaged in freedom rides, sit-ins, voter registration drives, the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) challenge in Atlantic City, the 1963 March on Washington, the organizing of the Lowndes County Freedom Party in 1965 and 1966 saw the need to participate in electoral politics. Julian Bond's electoral campaign was the first effort by SNCC organizers. Ivanhoe Donaldson [Barry's campaign manager in 1978] was Julian's campaign manager and Judy Richardson, SNCC staff member, and Charlie Cobb, SNCC field secretary, were Julian's campaign staff.
After the MFDP challenge, many SNCC staff members saw independent local electoral politics as a powerful instrument to challenging segregation. SNCC organized in Lowndes County, Alabama — a county that was 80% black and only had 4 African-Americans registered to vote — to begin a registration drive and to get the black residents to occupy every local office from tax assessor, probate judge to sheriff. SNCC field staff started thinking beyond getting people to vote because it's a good thing and a civic thing. We started discussing what would it take for black people to assume power over their communities, and what should be done once you got the power.
All of Marion's political thinking and direction came out of the Movement. SNCC's focus was on making strong the ability of the local communities to succeed in a segregated society. We always had a bottom-up philosophy as opposed to a top-down philosophy. SNCC worked with the black sharecroppers, who were often described as ignorant and they shouldn't be allowed to vote. But we had a focus saying that they were American citizens. Even though they were exploited economically, it was important for them to be able to vote.
The other big influence both on Marion and all of us in SNCC was Ella Baker — she worked for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), was the Director of NAACP Chapters, and was an organizer for the YWCA. Ms. Baker was the person who called together the young people who were part of the sit-in movement that was started in Greensboro, North Carolina on February 1, 1960 at Shaw University that resulted in the founding of SNCC. Marion Barry was elected as SNCC first Chairman at that meeting. Ms Baker imparted to the students who would later become SNCC organizers the basic philosophy that "Strong people did not need strong leaders."
SNCC members learned early on not to be intimidated by the fears that were in the political environment at that time. One big issue, and I know people have forgotten this, but McCarthyism was big in the late '50s and early '60s. In order not to be labeled a Communist, one had to watch with whom he/she associated. This issue was a big concern for the civil rights leadership especially Dr. Martin Luther King. SNCC just blew past that fear and intimidation we didn't care about the labels. We felt that we weren't going to be consumed by people's fears.
SNCC was a diverse group and we had conversation lasting not less than 8 to 10 hours about everything. [Laughter.]
By the time some of the SNCC veterans got to DC, we were in our late twenties. We had our whole view of the world, our whole perspective had been formed the SNCC experiences that we've had in an eight-year period.
Maulsby: So you come here in '69.
Maulsby: What was your impression of the City in '69? You had been a student here, so ...
Cox: Our impression here in '69 was that there was a lot to be done. We would need to continue to challenge much of what existed in Washington. Housing was segregated and there were no blacks bus drivers for O. Roy Chalk's transit company. When I first came back to the District the Washington Post still had separate [employment] ads for blacks and for whites.
Clifton Terrace, which is right in the heart of the black community was segregated. At the time, only whites living in Clifton Terrace. In 1969, Southerners controlled the Committee in Congress that ran the City, and there was no way of allowing the voices and the wishes of the majority of the District residents to be heard. The kind of dependency and the kind of plantation system that we had here in 1969 was something that really dominated the discussion.
Maulsby: So in 1969, post-Civil Rights Bill, '64, Voting Rights Act, March on Washington, all that, DC, when you came here, was still ...
Cox: I can't remember the years when some things changed on a small level, whether O. Roy Chalk had hired one or two black bus drivers. When I came here, they had none. On my return to Washington, one of the first things I did when I came here was to picket RFK stadium because the Redskins [football team] had no black players. The next year the Washington football team drafted a black player, Ernie Davis, and then hired, Bobby Mitchell and one or two other black player on the team.
The issue of Home Rule was big in 1969. District residents resented their continued disenfranchisement by Congress. The District residents also resented that the members of the committee that ran this City were from the South and the leadership was from South Carolina. Retired military officers, many of them from the South, occupied many of the senior government positions in the District government. The retired military wanted jobs and the Congress passed out positions in the District government like candy. So District residents were excluded from government jobs and the ability to participate in the political process.
Maulsby: The City Council at this point was appointed?
Maulsby: And the Mayor?
Cox: The Mayor ... well, the City Council was appointed, and I think Walter Washington was the appointed Mayor. I remember after King was assassinated, he was the person who was telling the National Guards where to go in the City and so forth.
Maulsby: So when you got here in '69, did you connect with Marion Barry right away?
Cox: Yeah. SNCC people are always connecting to each other. I knew Marion was doing Pride [a youth training and employment program he ran] at that point, and I wasn't part of that. But we were all doing things in the City, and if we needed to call on each other, we would call on each other even though we weren't structurally connected.
Maulsby: Marion first ran for the School Board.
Maulsby: And then for City Council. Were you involved in those campaigns?
Cox: I probably was, but I can't remember any details about whether I was. I remember that Marion would say that he was inspired by Marvin Gaye's song "Save the Children," and that was his theme. Through Ivanhoe and others, we were probably connected, but not to the level that we were connected when he ran for Mayor.
Maulsby: But before he ran for Mayor in '78, you hadn't been involved ...
Cox: Not really in any serious way. I listened to him in terms of what he would chose a theme, and he was listening to Marvin Gaye, and he heard that theme, you know, Save the Children, and that quote inspired him in this discussion. Whether it's real or not, I don't know. [Laughter.]
Maulsby: Did you vote for him?
Cox: Oh, yeah. I voted for Johnny Wilson [who became the Ward 2 City Council member]. Johnny Wilson was also a SNCC person. Eleanor Holmes Norton [elected DC Delegate to Congress in 1990] is a SNCC person. There were a number of people who influenced politics in Washington that came out of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
Maulsby: When did you first have a conversation with Marion Barry about his running for Mayor?
Cox: I'm not sure, but I know that Walter Washington was the Mayor. Then a lot of the black middle class wanted Sterling Tucker to run because Walter Washington was kind of older and old school. Marion was a member of the Council and he was in his early 40's. Marion was told that he was a young man and he should wait to run for Mayor. To some, Sterling Tucker who was 10 to 12 years older than Marion was the right person to run.
Maulsby: Who was Sterling Tucker?
Cox: Sterling Tucker was the chairperson of the Council at that time.
Maulsby: Had he been involved in the Civil Rights Movement as well?
Cox: He was the Washington Director of Urban League. The Urban League was part of the Civil Rights Movement.
Cox: As I said earlier, Marion was considered a youngster. I guess my involvement in Marion campaign came at the time the conversations began about trying to convince Marion that he should not run at that time and he should wait his turn. Walter Washington was seen as the past, Sterling Tucker was seen as the present and Marion was seen as the future. To the black District establishment Marion was "young enough that he could wait his turn" and so forth. The view of the SNCC veterans was this is our turn this is the time to do what we wanted to do, politically.
The SNCC veterans conversations focused on how do we now support Marion, and how do we now overcome the kind of pressures from the black leadership in the District about Marion waiting his turn? He was just a Council member. So you had the Mayor, who was Walter Washington, you had Sterling Tucker was the Council president, and then you had Marion, who was a Council member, who was viewed as full of energy, was viewed as the champion of the street dudes, was viewed as somebody who was different, who would shake stuff up, and black political leadership was trying to hold him at abeyance. So we decided, no, this was something that we would do. It wasn't kind of sitting down and saying, okay, let's just plot this out. My early conversations with Marion and others was, okay, he was going to run for office ... he's young, but they were coming at him on this issue, how do we mount a campaign to blunt that and to move Marion ahead?
Maulsby: And who were the other people that were in this discussion?
Cox: I would say I remember having conversations with Del Lewis [telephone company executive and Barry supporter]. I remember having a conversation ... well, obviously, Ivanhoe [Donaldson]. And the other person who was just kind of really in and out, but it took a long time to get him in, was Johnny Wilson. Johnny, although he came out of SNCC and we could put a lot of pressure on him, Johnny was also on the Council. And Johnny was trying to figure out how to play his game. I can't remember others who come to the top of my head, but I know we had those conversations with maybe, say, Reggie Robinson [SNCC veteran] or some others around, but I can't remember all of the names.
Maulsby: Is this in '76, '77, or ...
Cox: I don't remember the years.
Maulsby: Yeah, yeah. But at some point, there was never any doubt in your mind that Marion was going to go for it.
Cox: Oh, no, there was never any doubt, no, no. Marion got on the School Board with "Save the Children," decided to become the chair of the School Board, got there, got on the Council. They wanted him to maybe run for Council Chairman instead of mayor, but, no, he wanted to run for Mayor.
Maulsby: And when did you get actively involved in the '78 campaign? By the way, what were you doing at this time?
Cox: I was still doing Movement stuff. I was doing stuff that dealt with the Sahel [the arid area across northern Africa where the Sahara Desert transitions into savannah]. There were big issues with food and big issues with the [African] liberation movement, so I was doing a lot of stuff in either the Sahel, or the liberation movements of Southern Africa. I remember it was maybe '76, '77, and so forth, that there was a great lack of water in the Sahel and people were having great problems. I was also working with people in liberation movements. So a lot of stuff I was doing probably was international, but I was still doing Movement stuff at that point.
Maulsby: And you still had the bookstore?
Cox: We still had the bookstore. No, the bookstore wasn't flourishing, so it was about to go out of business by around that time.
Maulsby: Right. So Marion announced for Mayor, was it early '78?
Cox: Right, right.
Maulsby: And did you start to work in the campaign right away? And what did you do?
Cox: Yeah. A lot of what I tried to do was deal with the likes of Bob Washington [attorney and chairman of the DC Democratic Party] and all these others who were in for Sterling Tucker because we had a group called a Saturday club, which had Ron Brown [lawyer and Director of the Urban League's Washington office, Chair of the National Democratic Party and Secretary of Commerce in the Clinton Administration] and Cliff Alexander [lawyer, former candidate for Mayor, and Secretary of the Army in the Carter Administration] and Vinny Cohen [lawyer and partner at Hogan and Hartson] and Bob Washington. It was the "elite group" in this town.
Maulsby: No women.
Maulsby: No women.
Cox: It was all men. We played basketball. At that time, there was a huge push to get everybody in the Club behind Sterling. A lot of my first memories were combating that. I remember Bob Washington would always come on Saturdays and say, "You better Tuck on in." I'm beginning to operate within that environment and begin to show that there were some people who were going to support Marion in that environment.
Maulsby: Were you the only one in that group that was supporting Marion at that point?
Cox: You know ...
Maulsby: Vinny Cohen?
Cox: I think while Bob Washington was out there as the big pusher of Sterling Tucker, I think those guys were not as vocal on this issue. But I would say they were probably more inclined to support Sterling Tucker as opposed to supporting Marion. I think they bought into the view we have nothing against Marion. That Marion is a great guy, and so forth, but he's a youngster and he needs to wait his turn.
Cox: I think that was the balance and the fight that we had to make. Anybody who was prepared to fight back on it, probably I was the one who was doing that. But, I think these guys, while they were not vocal and open, I think at the end of the day they probably were prepared to support Sterling, maybe with the exception of Ron Brown, but he wasn't vocal either.
Maulsby: So besides doing that, trying to peel some of those people off, what other kinds of things did you get involved in, in the campaign?
Cox: I was doing whatever one does in these political campaigns. I was doing outreach and doing probably a number of things like that. I wasn't doing what you were doing because I remember the Gertrude Stein Club. What impressed me about the Gertrude Stein Club is that the members of the Club would be there every day and making calls and doing that kind of stuff, and I know I wasn't doing that. [Laughter.]
Cox: Making these calls and being on there, really getting your hands dirty work.
Maulsby: Yeah, yeah.
Cox: I wasn't doing what you guys were doing, but I was probably really kind of more involved in helping shape policy, kind of more trying to deal with certain categories of people. I remember having meetings with Del Lewis in his office, helping to raise money, that kind of stuff. I know I wasn't doing the nitty-gritty work.
Maulsby: But, I mean, did you do outreach to the small business, the minority, community?
Cox: No, because at that point, I really hadn't gotten into that because, as I said, a lot of what I was doing was much more involved in terms of political stuff, more involved in the international stuff. So I was just coming back into the country, I mean intellectually coming back into the country when Marion started running. So a lot of it, mine was dealing with policy, dealing with fundraising, dealing with constituencies that were in the black community. But they were not businesspeople, they were more on the professional side. The reality was actually before Marion came in and his first administration, there was no such thing as a black business community here. Marion created it, so there was nobody to talk to. [Laughter.]
Maulsby: So when you look back on the campaign, what do you see as key moments in that campaign in '78?
Cox: Ivanhoe calling me at 4:00 in the morning after there was a meeting with a number of people, Sterling Tucker's people, trying to push Marion out of the race.
Maulsby: Sterling Tucker's people.
Cox: I mean Sterling Tucker's people. Sterling Tucker's people trying to push him out of the race, and I guess Rev. Channing Phillips was there and a number of other people whose names I can't recall.
Maulsby: Was Reverend Eaton there?
Cox: Reverend David Eaton [pastor of All Souls Unitarian Church], that's who I was thinking.
Cox: David Eaton and people trying to get Marion out of the race. Ivanhoe saying, "Okay, we've got to think of something." I was saying to myself, it is 4:00 in the morning, I didn't care. He kept me on the phone for an hour talking about what we were going to do and how we were going to handle it. And I remember the decision that was clear that we were not going to move out. It was clear that we had to ramp up visibility, and that's when the whole idea that there was a trolley in town that was there. I remember Del Lewis and Bob Johnson [owner of Black Entertainment Television] making arrangements to get the trolley with Marion's name emblazoned on it and us beginning to go around town to ramp up greater visibility. [A double-decker London bus, not a trolley, was hired, decorated with Marion Barry banners and was used when Marion went out campaigning in the neighborhoods].
The other thing I remember that's interesting are the debates.
Cox: So the first debate, Sterling Tucker, whether he wanted to or whether it was the positioning, he was sitting in the middle. Sterling Tucker is not a big person, and both Marion ... Marion was maybe 6'1", something like that, maybe Walter Washington may be 5'11", and Walter is kind of a big guy. We sat there, and I looked, and Walter Washington and Marion talked. Sterling just tried to seem to be the reasonable mayoral type. He didn't say a lot. He wanted to have people have a sense that these two people are bickering, but he was the reasonable one.
We kind of observed it, and one of the things we said to Marion is in each debate ... at each debate going forward ... make sure you put Sterling in the middle because he's dwarfed, and as opposed to him looking mayoral, he looks small. That is the other thing I remember in terms of trying to think through how to position Marion and how to begin to deal with Sterling who we viewed as the greater of the threats to Marion's becoming Mayor.
I remember the role that the Washington Post played. The Washington Post was very much behind Marion, and I forgot her last name, but Patricia was the person on the editorial page. Every time the Post polling that Marion needed a boost, we would go to her, and she would get the editorial page to do a piece that would help. At that point, the Washington Post editorial support carried great weight in Washington. A Post endorsement doesn't mean that much today, but it really meant a big deal because in 1978 Marion won Wards 1, 2, 3, and 6, and so Marion won most of the Wards that had a majority white population and it was because of the Washington Post.
The other thing I remember is cornering Johnny Wilson because he was going up and down, and up and down about whether he would come out and endorse Marion. Marion asked those of us who were in SNCC to put constant pressure on Johnny. Johnny Wilson endorsed Marion after the failed efforts to get Marion to withdraw by the Sterling Tucker camp. We were able to put tremendous pressure on him based on our relationships from SNCC.
Maulsby: So do you think that maneuver to push Marion out really backfired and ended up working in Marion's advantage?
Cox: I would say so. It put us on the highest alert, and it just said that from that time on to whenever we just were ... we did things after that maneuver that we probably would not have done. I would not have been up at 4:00 am. [Laughter.]
Cox: We probably would not have gotten that trolley that went around the City. Johnny would have probably still been waffling back and forth. And we probably would have had two less editorials in the Washington Post. I'm not sure whether it was a determining factor, but it certainly took the discussion to another level.
Maulsby: Going back to the debates and the effort to position Sterling Tucker, was that sort of the strategic thinking from the campaign, that the electorate had decided they didn't want Walter Washington?
Maulsby: And so who is the alternative ...
Cox: Yes. Sterling Tucker was. And we wanted to make him seem weak. He thought he was seeming mayoral, and we thought it came across that he looked weak, and that is what we wanted to project.
Maulsby: So why did Marion Barry win?
Cox: I think a lot of it was a combination of factors. First, Marion was, by that time, a known entity. Whether people liked him or not, he was known. Second, he was a person who a lot of people thought would stand up for those who were the least of these. The City was at that point majority black, and the economic center of the City thought that they needed somebody who had the energy to engage people at the bottom because the question of unemployment and so forth was still an issue.
Marion had showed with his work with Wirtz, Willard Wirtz [US Secretary of Labor 1962-9, who underwrote Marion's youth program, Pride, Inc.], and others like that at Labor, that he could engage the government to assist in employment strategies. Mayor developed a slogan that characterized the Walter Washington administration as "bumpling and bumbling" and he captured in a phrase what a lot of the economic powers thought about the Walter Washington Administration. In addition, we had the energy and imagination of a young, dynamic organization in our late 30s.
Cox: Yeah. [Laughter.]
We showed a lot more energy, we had a lot more creativity, and we probably had a greater sense of moving the City forward than, say, Sterling, who was much more reserved. His thought was that he would just appeal to certain groups and that they would put him over the top. Marion won with a plurality of 35 percent of the vote.
The other big thing that made a big difference ... and you don't know how this would have come out ... but there were three people there, and it was not a 50 percent requirement, so 35 percent ... I forgot what Sterling got. He must have gotten maybe in the high 20s or something like that. My sense is probably those are the factors that put Marion over.
Maulsby: So what did you do on Election Day?
Cox: On Election Day I did a lot of work getting out the vote, and actually wound up that night at Florence Tate's [1978 campaign press secretary] house.
Maulsby: Oh, at night. Okay.
Cox: I was talking to Milton Coleman [Washington Post reporter], and I said to him, "How is Walter Washington taking this?" And he said, "Oh, you mean that has-been?" I was really kind of taken aback by that statement. So on Election Day, we did all the stuff at the polls and handing out materials and doing all that kind of stuff, but a number of us who were part of SNCC, I can't remember whether Marion was there or not, but I know we all wound up at Florence Tate's house. And, of course, Florence had been very close to SNCC, too. We were kind of amazed that we pulled it off. I mean because this was our first effort in the big city. It was kind of new for all of us, and that we pulled it off was a big surprise to some of us.
Maulsby: Did you think right up to Election Day you were not going to pull it off? [Laughter.]
Cox: I don't know. I think right up to Election Day we thought that we would do everything to try to pull it off, and a lot of that is centered around Ivanhoe's mentality, and as a group, we were used to making sure that if we wanted to go after something, it would happen. It wasn't clear that we would win, but we were hoping to win. And then when we won. It was still a surprise. I didn't think we went in there saying we would lose, but we still were surprised that we won. [Laughter.]
Maulsby: And so you came along with the transition?
Maulsby: And what did you do in terms of the transitioning?
Cox: I worked during the transition to help with the hiring of Marion's leadership team. Particularly, I remember the interview with Bob Moore, who became Housing Director. During the transition, I also remember the discussions with Colonel Starobin, the Director of the Department of General Services. Colonel Starobin, was one of several retired officers in the District government. And as the chief procurement officer, his reputation was horrible among black business and professionals. There was nothing but retired colonels at the Department of General Services; Army colonels and Air Force colonels. There were colonels all up and down the government. I remember Marion telling Steroben that he was gone. So I was involved in the whole transitional discussion.
During the transition, I remember a conversation ... and I think this was an important conversation ... the conversation went on about what you would do with those who were not with Barry before the primary, particularly people like Bob Washington and those who were with Sterling Tucker, and people maybe like Jim Hudson [lawyer], who supported Walter Washington and so forth. There was one side that said, "Okay, to the victor belongs the spoils."
Ivanhoe to his credit, said, "No, you now have to be Mayor of all the people and you have to be open to everybody." Marion supported Ivanhoe's position. Some people who supported Marion were concerned about the thought that he was now open to everybody and everything. But I think that was probably the most fateful decision Marion made.
Maulsby: And it was Marion's decision?
Cox: Yes, made the decision to be open and to not hold grudges and not say, "Well, you didn't support me," such-and-such, "and you're out." He created a more open environment. I think that probably was very important because I think that if you look at other administrations that have had an insular view, it's really a downward spiral.
I think a number of people who put Marion in office were not overly happy that Marion embraced as many people as he could. But I think during the transition that was probably the most important decision he made ... what would be the political environment of his Administration.
Another decision that Marion made I think was important during that period was his decision to pull on his history in SNCC and really emphasize diversity. As you remember, Mary (sic) King, Director for Board and Commissions probably had the worst of it ... she had to make sure that all Boards and Commissions represented the residents of the District of Columbia.
Maulsby: You mean Betty King.
Cox: I mean ... sorry ... Betty King. Betty King had the worst of it. That whole issue of making sure of geographic ... particularly people from east of the river ... making sure that that was a big issue, making sure women were involved. Another big issue was making sure that people from the gay community ... but I think probably those three big pieces, those who were east of the river were men ... people from the gay community, those probably were the drivers. Before the Barry Administration, most of these Boards and Commissions were people from Ward 4, Ward 1, Ward 3, Ward 2, and not east of the river. So I think that's another big decision.
Unlike most people who come to office, Marion saw as his responsibility the breaking down existing barriers. As an example, of "breaking down barriers," he told the people from Wall Street, who wanted to sell municipal bonds to the District "Don't just send anybody from your ... I need to have somebody who looks like me in order to have a conversation about municipal bonds." He told the big law firms, if you want to do business with the District "You've got to have black partners." He told the big accounting firms the same message. There was an economic environment that excluded blacks from senior and leadership positions and that he used his office and the audacity of his views to begin to break down the established system of segregation.
My sense is that during the transition, a lot of the discussion was about what you usually takes place in transitions. Steroben had to go and the new Administration had to get rid of all those colonels who dealt with procurement and so forth. We had to bring in some of the brightest and the best black public administrators.
But I think in addition to that, in those interviews, he made big, broad decisions that made a difference. He was going to include those who were opposed to him. Diversity was a big issue. Barriers were no longer tolerated. Inclusion also had to be with two groups, seniors and children. The seniors loved Marion. He took those decisions early on, so they weren't add-ons to the way he governed. They were fundamental to the way he governed. Those decisions were made during the first transition. The other big decision is he wanted to build the black business community. I was asked to take on that responsibility, Business development was not my first choice, but ...
Maulsby: What was it?
Cox: Working within an established agency ... in running something. Both Ivanhoe and Marion talked me into taking on the task of creating a new agency. My sense was that minority business development made a big difference because it was central to the Administration's objectives. So in Cabinet meetings, he would ask me to report on agencies progress in working with minority businesses, and nothing focuses the mind of a Cabinet member when the chief executive is asking these questions. I think that Marion was ... he was unusual in the sense that while he did focus on governing, he had bigger ideas about what governance was about.
An advantage that Marion had coming in is that he had worked in the community all along, so people in the various government agencies, he knew who they were. Marion would call them up, "What's going on in your agency?" He had a very good gift for remembering names. He would remember people's names. He would know as much as what's going on in any agency as the director. Coming in, he brought all those things with him, and I must say, as I look back on it, I think Marion's governance really reflect his Movement experience in terms of his relationship to people.
Particularly, Marion wanted to make sure that those on the economic and political bottom were included. I think that that whole view that you deal with the least of these, and if you have people who are strong, you don't need strong leaders. I think that shaped his early thinking. That's my sense of the way that things went.
Maulsby: I think what you've been saying sort of anticipated what my question was going to be, my next question, which was, you know, what difference did it make had Tucker or Walter Washington been elected Mayor? How did the City ...
Cox: Well, a huge difference, a huge difference. I went to lunch with a young lady earlier this year, and she came up during Marion's Administration. She said, "You know, you guys spoiled my generation because we thought that there were no limitations, that we were the center, we were able to do things. Now that Marion is no longer here, no longer there, there is a harsh reality we have to face, that you guys gave us a cover and ability to do things." I think had Walter Washington won, there wasn't going to be much change. Had Sterling won, probably the African American professionals might have done a little better. But I don't think we'd have much more. But when you talk about what difference it made, I think first you would not have had a focus on young people that Marion brought and the kind of the leadership kinds of things.
Today, Kwame Brown, who was former chair [of the DC City Council] and was part of the Marion Barry Youth Leadership Institute, that's how he got involved in politics. Senior citizens would have not had what they had. As I mentioned, the minority business, there would have not been the minority business community that exists today. I don't think that Sterling and them would have focused on diversity as Marion did. It was not in their DNA to make a difference, it was in their DNA to get elected. It was in Marion's DNA to make a difference. I think that's the big ... that's the differentiating factor I would say.
Maulsby: But you really ... you go back to SNCC.
Maulsby: That's really the whole ...
Cox: Yes. I go back to SNCC. Had Marion not been in SNCC, he would have not had the whole world view that he had. Marion was the first chair of SNCC, and the reason he was the first chair of SNCC, he was probably one of the older people in the room. [Laughter.]
Maulsby: You keep going back to this thing. [Laughter.]
Cox: I mean, no, no. When I talk to the millennials, those younger than 35 years old I say to them, "You know, when I was your age, I was considered old." I was doing stuff when I was 20, 21, and 22. You've got to remember this was ... I mean, it was a tremendous piece where young people who are generally considered just voting age and considered either irresponsibility or just assuming responsibility were taking tremendous responsibility not only for their own lives, but for the lives of others and for the way this country was going.
All of us faced, by the time we were 21, 22, 23, in Mississippi, Alabama, Southwest GA, Arkansas, Danville, VA, wherever it was, you had a real possibility of life and death based on what SNCC was doing. So we grew up a lot, we grew up fast, and I think the ability to take on a segregated system that had existed, since Plessy v. Ferguson [the Supreme Court decision making "separate but equal" segregation legal], 1896, and begin to change that system was a tremendous weight. So I think that we all were different. Marion was different, and Marion was able to govern differently because he understood what it meant to be in power. One of the things I remember was in the first Cabinet meeting and I was sitting next to the police chief, and I really ... it was Maurice ...
Maulsby: It might have been Maurice Turner. No, he ...
Cox: It was Maurice Turner. I was sitting next to the police chief, and I kept saying to myself, "Why am I sitting next to this police chief? I'm always in opposition." [Laughter.]
As a result of my being part of the Barry Administration, I had to switch my thinking from protest to power because I was always on the side of protest. I eventually came to the view that it's always better to be in power as opposed to protest because when you're in power you can make the decisions, you can call the shots. When you're in protest, you're asking those in power to call the shots.
Marion understood power. He understood the need to govern and to govern openly. But he also understood the need to govern with a purpose. Now, I must also say that because he did that, there was a lot of opposition that came his way because those who were particularly in economic power felt the need to move in a different direction because they viewed it as a zero-sum game; the more for others, the less for them. But at least, given an opportunity from SNCC, he brought that mindset. Sterling Tucker nor Walter Washington would have brought it.
The most objective observers would say Marion's first term was clearly one of the outstanding terms in the District's history. I don't think the others could have attracted the talent that Marion attracted. I know Walter couldn't because the generational issues were too big.
Maulsby: Have you ever talked to people who were involved in Walter Washington's campaign or Sterling Tucker's campaign to get their take on things and why they lost? Did you ever have a conversation with Joe Yeldell [fixture in DC government for many years spanning many Mayors] about that?
Cox: No, even though Joe Yeldell was my neighbor I never had that conversation with him. In fact, Marion hired Joe Yeldell as part of his Administration. I think that the big thing was that once Marion decided to be open and bring people in and so forth, they just said, hey, let's just go with it. I think they were very much appreciative of Marion's early decision to be open and not say, "You all got to go," and so forth. Marion retained some of the people who were part of Walter Washington's administration. I remember one guy who was I guess at that point a GS-16 who he put over in my shop because the guy had a few years to retire, about a year to retire. Marion didn't just want to fire him, so he put him over in my shop. Now, the guy resented it, but at least he got a pension.
Maulsby: What was your shop, by the way?
Cox: Minority Business Opportunity Commission.
Maulsby: And that was the first job you had in the administration?
Cox: Yes. The Director of the Minority Business Opportunity Commission.
Maulsby: And there had not been anything like that before?
Cox: It didn't exist.
Maulsby: It didn't exist.
Cox: It didn't exist and people were amazed. The minority business community appreciated Marion creating the agency during his Administration first year. Outside of Pitts Motor Hotel and a couple of small businesses, the black middle class consisted of professionals — there were doctors, there were lawyers, there were dentists, and preachers. The professionals were the black middle class, not the business community. There were no entrepreneurs, there were no people doing business because there was no marketplace for them. Marion created a marketplace that allowed them to exist. Also, the Barry Administration not only allowed businesses to exist, it allowed the professionals to exist at higher level than they had existed before his election to office. Even the ministers, remember Marion gave ministers special tags [license tags for their cars].[Laughter.]
Cox: He gave minister an additional sense of worth, because Marion coming out of the South, coming out of the Movement, understood the role that the church played in terms of the cohesion in the black community. Marion knew the importance of ministers in the black community and he catered to their needs. So for lawyers, he enhanced, he opened up the arena for them in the big law firms. For the accountants, opened it up for the big accounting firms. But for the minority businesses, he created ... it was ground zero, and that, it was a big thing that, it was a big issue and minority businesses appreciated it. And a number of people have tried to, "recreate" it, but you can't recreate it when you don't understand what really you're trying to do. So then you get into foolishness.
Maulsby: With all the things you've done in your life, Mississippi Summer and all that, I mean, the '78 campaign, where does that fit in your pantheon of memorable moments in your life?
Cox: It was important. It was a very important piece because, as I was saying earlier, it switched me from protest to power. It allowed me ... the '78 campaign ... allowed me to understand how one begins to function in order to really deal with issues, how you had to fight to get into position. So the fight ... the '78 campaign ... was the fight to get into position. It also allowed you to think about how you had to be creative, how you had to understand what the opposition was doing, how to play the opposition. It allowed me to see the world at another level, particularly after the campaign was won, what it is, what it can mean, to be in power and why it's important to actually seek power.
As I try to tell young people what they should be doing, whether it's Black Lives Matter, or Hands Up, Don't Shoot, or whatever, I say resistance is important, but there is always after you resist, then what? What change is made? You're still depending on those who are in power to make change. Having gone through '78 and being successful and going through, seeing what can be done when you're in power, it's important that they understand another level of the discussion.
My sense is that I view up to '78. I understood protests, I understood ... and I understood also seeking power because I had put a whole bunch of people in elected offices in the South, particularly Lowndes County, took over the county. But while I was involved in it, I was of it, but not in it. So I helped others get to where they were going, but now in '78, I was in it. I was making sure that the leaflets got handed out. I was making the arguments with my community I existed.
I was trying to think through strategically how you did things. And although I said I didn't get my hands dirty making those phone calls and stuff, that's all right, but I'm now having been in it, I can talk with some authenticity about what it means and where you should be going and what we should be doing as I talk to a lot of these young people today. And I'm not talking any hypotheticals, I'm talking about what I know and what I see, what I've seen.
So, you know, I think the '78 campaign really dealt with the second half of my life; the first half being protests, the second half being power.
Maulsby: So going back to that philosophical split between Marion and you, he was right, right? I mean, when ...
Cox: No, no, he was not right. [Laughter.]
I think we were right. It was not an "either/or", it had to be an "and", that you needed to have structure to succeed, but you needed to have a movement and understanding of why in order to be meaningful. My movement discussions in SNCC concerned the "what" and the "why" you did things. Marion's concerns focused on how you did things. You need both in order to succeed. So it wasn't a right or wrong, you needed both in order to succeed.
Maulsby: Oh, okay. [Laughter.]
All right. I think on that note, we'll conclude unless you have anything else you want to say.
Cox: Okay, good. No, not today.
Copyright © Courtland Cox and Richard Maulsby. 2015
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