For more than 70 years, Chicago’s social justice agenda was significantly shaped by a singular, powerful voice.
It belonged to the Rev. Willie T. Barrow, a pioneering civil rights leader, a female leader in a world that had few of them, and a mentor to her last day.
Chicago will miss her. We’re lucky the Texas native chose to make this town her town.
From the day of her arrival in Chicago in 1943 to her death Thursday at age 90, Barrow championed every cause that needed a champion. From civil rights and women’s rights, to labor rights and gay rights, too, there was no fight Barrow wasn’t willing to make her own.
Not for nothing did they call her the “Little Warrior.”
“Rev. Barrow was a dynamo when it came to being a champion of justice for the citizens of Chicago and for women and children, in particular,” Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis said in a statement. “Her stature was small, but her spirit was gigantic, her energy boundless and her commitment unwavering.”
Barrow worked with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks on sit-ins and boycotts in the South, and helped found Operation Breadbasket here in the 1960s, a precursor to the Rainbow PUSH Coalition. She became the first woman to run Operation Push. Later, she fought for gay rights after her son died of AIDS, worked for the election of Mayor Harold Washington and was invited to be with the man she called her “godson,” President Barack Obama, when he won in 2012.
Barrow never retired, mentoring new leaders to the very end.
“We have to teach this generation, train more Corettas, more Addies, more Dorothys,” she once told the Sun-Times. “If these youth don’t know whose shoulders they stand on, they’ll take us back to slavery. And I believe that’s why the Lord is still keeping me here.”
In the leaders she groomed, in causes she advanced, this pioneer’s work continues. Barrow’s singular voice carries on.