As I’ve been reading about the recent protests of the Black Lives Matter Movement, I began thinking of the older civil rights leaders who fought for African American rights in decades past. Last March 2015, one of the great civil rights leaders died. The Reverand Wille T. Barrow was a leader involved in the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement and the consumer rights movement. In an obituary in the New York Times, Sam Roberts wrote about Reverand Barrow:
The Rev. Willie T. Barrow, who championed civil rights for minorities, women, gay people and consumers; opposed the war in Vietnam and apartheid; and mentored generations of community organizers, including a young Chicagoan named Barack Obama, died on Thursday at her home in Chicago. She was 90.
…Ms. Barrow organized her first civil rights demonstration when she was 12, protesting the fact that she and her fellow black students had to walk to school in her hometown in Texas while whites could ride the school bus. She went on to conduct sit-ins and boycotts with luminaries of the movement, including the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, and joined in the 1963 March on Washington and the protests two years later in Selma, Ala. More recently she voiced concern over gun violence and dilution of the Voting Rights Act.
…While Ms. Barrow mentored men and women alike, she was an unabashed feminist.
She learned by opening her home “to all of the powerful women in the movement — Coretta Scott King, Dorothy Height, Addie Wyatt,” she told The Chicago Sun-Times in 2012. “We have to teach this generation, train more Corettas, more Addies, more Dorothys.”
Karen Grigsby Bates wrote about Reverand Barrow in NPR:
Although she was pixie-sized — all of 4 feet 11 inches — Rev. Barrow was considered a giant figure in Chicago politics. She, with Rev. Jackson, was a co-founder of Operation Breadbasket, which became the Rainbow-PUSH Coalition. Barrow was also a tireless community organizer, and an astute assessor of political talent.
…In short order, her organizing skills were put to use not only in that city, but throughout the U.S. Rev. Barrow marched in Selma with Rev. Martin Luther King, and was one of the civil rights leaders who urged him to bring his fight for racial justice to the North, to Chicago.
When Jackson became a presidential candidate in 1984, she was a supporter, organizer and strategist who would not allow herself to be muscled aside by the mostly-male entourage. Like Shirley Chisholm, she would not be ignored or denied. In addition for fighting for civil rights, she fought for women’s rights, and later, for gay rights. She became an early contributor to the AIDS Memorial Quilt when she stitched a panel in honor of her son Keith, who died in 1983.
The Little Warrior continued her battles for social justice at home, but she also traveled the globe on missions of peace. The little girl who demanded equity in Barrow, Texas, eventually made her way to Cuba, Vietnam, Russia and Nicaragua. And was in South Africa the day Nelson Mandela walked out of his prison on Robben Island. There is a photo of her with Mandala, beaming, in her living room. It’s one of many photos of Rev. Barrow with power figures — Mayor Harold Washington, Rev. King, Andrew Young, Rosa Parks and Oprah Winfrey.
President Obama gave this statement about the passing of Reverand Willie T. Barrow in March 12, 2015:
Reverend Willie T. Barrow was a Civil Rights icon and a Chicago institution, a “Little Warrior” in pursuit of justice for all God’s children. In 1936, when she was just 12 years old, Reverend Barrow demanded to be let on to her all-white school bus in Texas, and the fight for equality she joined that day would become the cause of her life. She marched with Dr. King on Washington and in Selma. She stood up for labor rights and women’s rights. She made one of the first pieces of the AIDS Memorial Quilt, and proudly welcomed LGBT brothers and sisters to the movement she helped lead.
Nowhere was Reverend Barrow’s impact felt more than in our hometown of Chicago. 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.
Michelle and I are deeply saddened by Reverend Barrow’s passing, but we take comfort in the knowledge that our world is a far better place because she was a part of it. Our thoughts and prayers are with Reverend Barrow’s family, and with all those who loved her as we did.
Rev. Willie T. Barrow, one of the nation’s consummate community organizers and respected civil rights leaders, received the Edwin C. “Bill” Berry Civil Rights Award at the 51st Annual Golden Fellowship Dinner in 2012. The award is named for Bill Berry, who led the Chicago Urban League from 1956-1969 and was a key leader in the civil rights movement in Chicago, the award is given annually to leaders who make a mark on the nation through hard work, perseverance and creativity.
Rev. Willie T. Barrow talks about her involvement in the consumer rights movement
Rev. Willie T. Barrow talks about women’s involvement in the March on Washington in 1963
Rev. Willie T. Barrow talks about her work with Operation PUSH
Rev. Willie T. Barrow’s advice to young African Americans