By Ian Simpson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Washington, D.C., on Thursday began its three-day final farewell to the late Marion Barry, the former mayor who remained a hero to many in the city despite a crack cocaine conviction.
Barry, known as the District of Columbia's "mayor for life" after four terms in office, died on Nov. 23 at 78 due to heart problems. He was a city councilman when he died, representing impoverished Ward 8.
Barry's coffin, draped in West African kente cloth and piled high with red roses, lay in repose at city hall after police pallbearers carried it past mourners, media and political leaders.
Civil rights leader the Rev. Jesse Jackson Jr. accompanied Barry's family into the black-draped building.
Many of the mourners said Barry, the son of a Mississippi sharecropper, had transformed the U.S. capital by giving jobs and hope to black residents.
"He's like a messiah for the district. He paved the way for many, many, many of us, African Americans as well as people in general," said Diane Lyons, 54, a healthcare worker.
Bernard Barker, 53, a laborer who had arrived at 6:30 a.m. to be first in line, prayed at Barry's coffin.
"I just said, 'God bless you, Mr. Marion Barry, God bless your family.' I know he's going to heaven because he did a lot of good for the city," Barker said.
Washington has planned three days of commemoration, with a motorcade carrying Barry's coffin on Friday to the Temple of Praise church, where he had worshipped.
A memorial service at Washington's convention center on Saturday is expected to draw thousands, with Jackson delivering the eulogy.
Barry became mayor in 1979 and focused resources on poor neighborhoods, government contracts for black businesses and jobs on the city payroll.
Barry's third consecutive term was sullied by open talk of womanizing, drinking and drug use. He responded to criticism with denials and claims that he was the victim of a racist media.
In 1990, the married Barry was captured on a hidden video camera smoking crack with a former girlfriend. His arrest came as Washington was plagued by a crack epidemic and drug-related homicides.
After a sentence for cocaine possession, Barry reclaimed the mayor's job two years later. His final term was marked by a federal takeover of the city's finances.
Barry was married four times and had one son.
(Editing by Bill Trott)