Paving the way with a lifetime of service

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Rev. Willie T. Barrow speaks at the Chicago Public Library in 2010. | Sun-Times File Photo

The Rev. Willie T. Barrow was definitely a “warrior” in the civil rights movement.

But she was also a feminist who built alliances with other powerful black women.

Over her long career, Barrow forged partnerships with two other women who played important roles in shaping the civil rights movement nationally and here in Chicago: the late Nancy B. Jefferson, an activist on the West Side, and Addie Wyatt, a pioneer in the organized labor movement who died last year.

Barrow died on Thursday at age 90.

She was married for more than 50 years to Clyde Raymond Barrow, and had one son, Keith. Both preceded her in death.

Barrow will be best remembered for her spirited defense of black people in the face of racial oppression, but she was at the forefront of the women’s empowerment movement long before Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg re-energized the movement to fight gender inequality.

Although Barrow was on the front lines of the civil rights struggle — having helped organize both the March on Washington in 1963 and the march in Selma, Ala., in 1965 — she often served in the background at the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition.

Unfortunately, while many of the black, female civil rights crusaders fought for racial equality, gender equality was still a ways off.

Most of these women marched and made speeches, but few of them were at the table when strategies were being formed.

It took nearly 10 years after the failed Nike boycott in 1990, and several turnovers of male executive directors, before Barrow was tapped to head the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition.

When I asked her about this, she told me that she simply got fed up and stopped training men to do the job.

Barrow served as chairman of the board for Rainbow/PUSH from 1998 until 2004, according to a spokesman for the organization.

At the same time, she also served as associate pastor at the Vernon Park Church of God that was founded by Addie and Clyde Wyatt.

For most of their careers Addie and Willie were like two peas in a pod. Both women were not only freedom fighters; they were religious and community leaders as well.

Barrow had no daughters. But she was considered a godmother by thousands of young women in the city. It didn’t matter if the women were working class and struggling or had a seat in the boardroom. If you let her, Barrow would take you under her wing.

That was the way she lived her truth.

At every opportunity, she would say that black people were not so much divided as they were disconnected.

Barrow also saw the critical need for black men and women to stay together. It concerned her that half of marriages were ending in divorce, and a lot of couples weren’t bothering to get married at all.

So she wrote “How to Get Married and Stay Married,” an advice book targeting newlyweds.

“It’s all right to get married, but it is better to stay married,” Barrow told me.

During her active years, Barrow would boast about being able to walk at least three miles a day. When her health declined, I would see her out and about in a wheelchair, always in the company of an attentive caregiver or goddaughter.

Barrow knew she had come a mighty long way.

She wanted us to come a mighty long way, too.

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