The Rev. Willie T. Barrow, a direct link to some of the greatest civil rights leaders and protests, died Thursday at age 90.
She had been in intensive care at Jackson Park Hospital, getting treatment for a blood clot in her lung.
“She was small in stature, but she was a giant in character,” said the Rev. Michael L. Pfleger of St. Sabina Church. “She was a person who was rooted in faith and who was a warrior for justice. The best way we can honor her is to live like her.”
“She never stopped fighting, and she’d been coming to PUSH the last three weeks in a wheelchair,” the Rev. Jesse Jackson said. “She remained current, very spiritual, and through her illness never stopped caring for other people. Rev. Barrow leaves a legacy of service, selfless service, inspirational, courageous service, and a sacred commitment to doing God’s will.”
President Barack Obama issued a statement saying he and first lady Michelle Obama were “deeply saddened” by Barrow’s death.
“Nowhere was Reverend Barrow’s impact felt more than in our hometown of Chicago,” the statement read in part. “Through Operation Breadbasket, the Rainbow/PUSH coalition and her beloved Vernon Park Church, she never stopped doing all she could to make her community a better place. To Michelle and me, she was a constant inspiration, a lifelong mentor and a very dear friend. I was proud to count myself among the more than 100 men and women she called her “Godchildren” and worked hard to live up to her example. I still do.”
Read the president’s complete statement here.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel ordered flags lowered at all city facilities Thursday in her honor.
Charismatic, with chic earrings and a winsome smile, she was called the “Little Warrior” for her activism on civil rights and labor and women’s causes. But people underestimated the petite reverend at their peril. As Chicago Sun-Times columnist Vernon Jarrett once said, she could issue a down-home growl from a pulpit or a picket line.
Many in Chicago’s African-American community saw her as a sister, godmother, matriarch and mentor. She worked with the 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.
Often described as the first woman to head a major U.S. civil rights organization, Rev. Barrow grew up in rural Burton, Texas, the daughter of Rev. Nelson Taplin, a Church of God minister.
“My dad was Baptist, my mother was Methodist, and my daddy’s baby brother (who lived with us) was a Jehovah’s Witness,” she once told the Windy City Times.
For her high school education, her parents sent her to join an older sister in San Francisco. She studied theology and psychology at Warner Pacific College in Portland, Oregon, and was later ordained.
During World War II, she worked as a welder at a massive Kaiser shipyard in the Pacific Northwest, where she met another welder who would become her husband: Clyde “Honey” Barrow, a Belizean immigrant. In 1945, they moved to Chicago, and he landed a job with General Motors.
She labored on the front lines of the civil rights movement, attending the 1963 March on Washington and planning marches and demonstrations. She got to know Rosa Parks and King.
Rev. Barrow offered a light-hearted insight on King in a 1984 interview with Ebony magazine. When he visited her home, “We’d send out for ribs, one of his favorite foods, and I’d get out my nice silver, my cloth napkins and my best china,” she recalled. “Then he’d say, ‘Now wait just a minute, Reverend, I have my silver right here,’ indicating his fingers. And he’d eat his barbecue and lick his fingers just like we did.”
“I opened my house up to all of the powerful women in the movement — Coretta Scott King, Dorothy Height, Addie Wyatt. I hung around with the people that had the power. That’s how I learned,” she once told the Sun-Times.
“We have to teach this generation, train more Corettas, more Addies, more Dorothys. 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 late 1960s, she and Rev. Jackson helped organize the Chicago chapter of Operation Breadbasket, a precursor to the Rainbow PUSH Coalition.
“She led our consumer advocacy, fighting against stores in our community that sold bad meat, old vegetables and overpriced food. We marched in front of A&P, National and Jewel’s at that time,” Jackson said. “We fought to get good products on the shelves, fought to get advertising in black newspapers and magazines, money in black banks, and for voter registration.”
“She led a group of women who went to Vietnam when we were working with Dr. King to try to end the war. She went to South Africa, met Nelson Mandela, and we were there together the day Mandela was released from jail,” he said. “She led a group of women to Nicaragua during that war trying to bring peace.”
After her son came out, she worked for gay rights and urged churches to embrace people with AIDS. Keith Barrow, a recording artist and her only child, died of the disease in 1983.
She helped nurse him through his illness and she made one of the early pieces of the AIDS Memorial Quilt. “My son was gay,” Rev. Barrow said in a 1988 Sun-Times interview, “and there was nothing ever that he and I did not share. I was not only his mother, but I was his friend.”
Asked if his sexual orientation changed their relationship, she was adamant. “Never! If God loved him, I had to love him,” she said. “If anything, it drew us closer together, because I knew he needed special understanding, special communication. I went out of my way to show I loved him.”
Rev. Barrow was a witness to many historic Chicago milestones. She worked for the election of the city’s first black mayor, Harold Washington, and she was at the hospital when he was declared dead of a heart attack. As chaos and skirmishes broke out at City Hall over who should succeed him, she helped lead a prayer for peace at a City Council session, saying, “God, Chicago needs you tonight.”
She was invited to be with the man she called her “godson,” President Barack Obama, at his McCormick Place headquarters when he won his second term in 2012. “He told me he wanted me there, and I was right there with him until 3 in the morning,” she told the Sun-Times. The president was one of many — she once estimated she had 130 “godchildren.”
She worked with politicians on both sides of the aisle, including Republican governors George Ryan and Jim Edgar.
Rev. Barrow spoke out against the nomination of Clarence Thomas before he was named to the U.S. Supreme Court, saying he used his race to avoid being held up to scrutiny on allegations of sexual harassment.
She fought for causes as varied as increasing minorities and women on the city’s police and fire departments and on TV news desks — and decreasing the hair-pulling and fistfights on “The Jerry Springer Show.”
The city named a street in her honor. The former Doctors Hospital of Hyde Park had a medical wellness center that carried her name.
Rev. Barrow even achieved P.I. immortality. Author Sara Paretsky worked her into her 2009 V.I. Warshawski mystery, “Hardball.” As the tough Chicago detective recovers in the hospital from an attack, Warshawski noted, “Julian Bond had called, as had Willie Barrow and other prominent civil rights veterans.”
Rev. Barrow liked to collect black dolls. She also wrote a book, “How to Get Married — and Stay Married,” with common sense recommendations, including “Don’t try and make your mate over. It cannot be done.” Her husband of 56 years died in 1998.