Civil Rights Tour: Protest - Marion Barry and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)

107 Rhode Island Avenue NW

"We want to free DC from our enemies, the people who make it impossible for us to do anything about lousy schools, brutal cops, slumlords, welfare investigators who go on midnight raids, employers who discriminate in hiring, and a host of other ills that run rampant through our city."(Marion Barry Jr. to SNCC Executive Committee, 1966)

It was with these words that 29-year-old Marion Barry launched the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) on a campaign to “free DC.” The District's citizens had no elected city government and had only recently won the right to vote in US presidential elections.

Barry came to DC in June 1965 to lead the city's SNCC chapter headquartered in the rowhouse at 107 Rhode Island Avenue, where staff lived in an apartment upstairs. Six months later, SNCC pulled off a successful one-day bus boycott to protest a threatened fare increase. As part of the boycott, coordinated by antipoverty activist Willie J. Hardy, SNCC set up 45 stations at barbershops, churches, laundromats and other spots where people participating in the boycott could get rides.  A year later, SNCC moved its headquarters to the building at 1234 U Street, now demolished. 

Buoyed by the boycott's ability to mobilize thousands of black DC citizens, Barry launched Free DC in February 1966, shortly after Congress killed a home rule bill backed by President Johnson. The Congressional Quarterly reported that fears that “the Negro majority would dominate . . . city government” led to the bill's demise. Indeed, that same fear resulted in the loss of local self-government almost a century earlier when black Washingtonians exercised the right to vote and were elected to office. Free DC focused on getting businesses, especially those catering to African Americans along H Street NE and 14th Street NW, to support home rule or risk being boycotted. As a result, more than 700 businesses displayed Free DC stickers in their windows. To increase community support, and to protest the city's lack of recreation facilities, Barry also organized a popular series of SNCC block parties. Finally, DC regained limited home in 1973.

After his 2014 death, Barry was remembered for engaging local youth in cleaning up the neighborhood. In fact, the training and employment of young black men in public works projects—in part to protect them from police violence—was at the heart of his next endeavor, Pride, Inc. After becoming a member of the city's first elected school board and then the City Council, Barry was elected Mayor in 1978, eventually serving four terms. The rowhouse and former SNCC headquarters at 107 Rhode Island Avenue NW was recently converted into a multi-bed youth hostel.