WASHINGTON (AP) _ With Marion Barry leaving office soon, the public tributes are flowing for the Mississippi sharecropper's son whose rise and fall and rise again as mayor of the nation's capital capped a political career that sprang from the civil rights movement.

The new downtown sports arena, constructed as part of a revitalization project in Barry's last term, was the site Thursday night for exhibits, a star-studded gala and even school lessons about his public service.

The event marked the opening of what many believe will be a long goodbye for the four-term mayor who steps down Jan. 3.

``You usually get these tributes when you die,'' Barry said.

The festivities were at the 19,000-seat MCI Center, which ``represents his legacy and his life,'' said Cora Masters Barry, the mayor's wife.

She said the arena's owner, Abe Pollin, ``feels very strongly that had it not been for the mayor there would not be an MCI arena.''

Gospel singer Yolanda Adams and rhythm and blues artist turned Chicago politician Jerry Butler headlined a program featuring live and videotaped tributes. Poet Maya Angelou and actor Louis Gossett Jr. served as masters of ceremonies for the event.

Popular recording artists Boyz II Men were expected to be part of the program, but an announcement was made during the show that lead singer Michael McCary was ill and that the group would not perform.

Angelou said Barry changed America with ``his unmitigated gall to stand up in the ashes of where he had fallen and come back to win.''

Barry, 62, was more modest, telling the gathering that he ``brought black people into government and business, and I created jobs for young people.''

Barry became a leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the civil rights movement and ``demonstrated extraordinary courage,'' said Coretta Scott King, the widow of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.

Later, Barry became Washington's second elected mayor in 1979.

In 1991 he left office in disgrace after being videotaped smoking crack cocaine in a downtown hotel.

``All during his low period is when I loved him the most'' Gossett said.

After serving a six-month prison sentence, Barry staged a political comeback, first winning a city council seat and then reclaiming the mayor's office in the 1994 election.

The District of Columbia's municipal government nearly went bankrupt before Congress stripped the mayor of most of his authority and installed a financial control board in 1995. Barry elected not to run again. Democrat Anthony Williams, a political novice but experienced budget cutter, is favored to win the mayor's race Nov. 3 against Republican Carol Schwartz.

City officials distributed materials to teachers for presentations and discussions marking ``Mayor Barry Day'' in the schools Thursday. Some Barry critics complained they glossed over his faults and pictured Washington as a racially divided city.

``We left it to the discretion of the teachers,'' said school spokeswoman Denise Tann. She said the central office told principals and teachers to conduct the discussions in a balanced manner.