Mourners remember Rev. Willie T. Barrow, civil rights icon

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Rev. Jesse Jackson arrives at the funeral for Rev. Willie T Barrow at the Vernon Park Church of God, 90th & Stony Island. Friday | Brian Jackson/For Sun-Times Media

As a child, Rev. Willie Taplin Barrow had three choices when faced with blatant racism in her hometown in Texas.

She could ignore the fact that black children had to walk miles to school. She could get mad and act out. Or she could resist.

Barrow chose to fight for what she knew was right, even at age 12, her longtime friend Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. told mourners at her funeral Friday.

“She organized her classmates, confronted the driver and fought for what she knew in her heart was right,” White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett said, reading an address from President Barack Obama, a longtime friend. “What began that day as a demonstration to get every child a seat on the bus, developed into a lifelong calling to pursue justice for every person.”


Rev. Willie T. Barrow. | File Photo

Barrow died March 12 at age 90.

She was a living link to the civil rights struggle. She worked with Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and the Rev. Ralph Abernathy on sit-ins and boycotts in the South, including the historic 1965 March on Selma.

“Seventy-five years of protests. God gave her a life full of stories,” Jackson told mourners. “Dr. King, 39; Malcolm [X], 39, Willie Barrow, 90 years,” he said to applause.

The pews of Barrow’s beloved Vernon Park Church of God at 90th and Stony Island were packed with hundreds of people. Many there were among her dozens of godchildren; Barrow was a mentor and godmother to many — including President Barack Obama.

Barrow’s funeral service was filled with laughs, with song and with appreciation for a long life filled with love, faith and courage.

Jackson, who along with Barrow helped organize the Chicago chapter of Operation Breadbasket, a precursor to the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, clapped for the civil rights “little warrior” before closing her casket.

Her longtime friend civil rights activist Dr. Calvin Morris, who had served as associate director of Operation Breadbasket, reminded mourners that Barrow was a woman of faith. He said it was her faith that led her decisions throughout her courageous life.

“What Willie did is to school us and teach us despite the fact we knew everything. She was that kind of authentic soul. She was a person of integrity. You could believe what she said because you know if she did not say anything, you were not on the right track,” Morris said.

Often described as the first woman to head a major U.S. civil rights organization, Barrow was able to organize because people knew she cared, Morris said.

“She cared about people, and because she did, they followed her. That’s why she was such a great warrior, because people sensed in her her care and her concern for them.”

Barrow was married to her husband Clyde Barrow for 56 years. Clyde Barrow, known by everyone as “Honey,” died in 1998. The couple was told they couldn’t have a child. And so Barrow prayed and fasted, Morris told mourners.

After her son Keith Errol came out, she worked for gay rights and urged churches to embrace people with AIDS.

And as her son lay dying in a hospital in 1983, she stopped a self-imposed fast and let her son die: “She was putting her son in the hands of a faithful God,” Morris said.

Jarrett said she was always greeted by Barrow with a bear hug and a dose of reality: “She told me exactly what she thought with clarity and conviction, and in an instant she could inspire me to try harder, do better, stay focused and committed and to not let myself be distracted,” she said.

Jackson said Barrow would be happiest knowing those who love her continue her fight for civil rights.

“Willie will be with us as long as we remember her,” Jackson said.


Rev. Willie T. Barrow’s funeral was held Friday at Vernon Park Church of God. | Brian Jackson/For The Sun-Times

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