Remembering activist Addie Wyatt

April 6, 2012

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Addie Wyatt had her hands in most of the 20th century’s biggest progressive movements: she raised money for and marched with Martin Luther King Jr. during the early days of the civil rights movement. She rose through the ranks of the labor movement. And she pushed women’s equality, too, working for equal pay and helping found the National Organization for Women. 

Wyatt died last week at the age 88 in a Chicago hospital after several years of failing health.

Wyatt held key positions in the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, often as the first African-American woman to do so. She demanded equitable wages in her fight against racism. From 1941-1947, Wyatt worked at Armour & Company and from 1947-1954 she worked at the Illinois Meat Company.

Eleanor Roosevelt appointed her to serve on President John F. Kennedy’s Commission on the Status of Women. She also advised Kennedy as well as Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Jimmy Carter. Wyatt deemed President Barack Obama as a son.

Born in 1924, Wyatt moved to Chicago from Mississippi during the Great Depression and lived in Bronzeville. She was married to the late Rev. Claude Wyatt Jr. In 1960 they founded and pastored Vernon Park Church of God. They were also co-founders of Operation Breadbasket, which later morphed into the Rainbow PUSH Coalition.

Ora Howard lives near Vernon Park Church of God and has long admired Wyatt.

“I was so very much impressed when I found out that years ago she had refused to be a typist [at a packing plant] … that was her beginning, opening her eyes to becoming a labor leader for women,” Howard said. “Her impact on women will be felt for so long.”

Wyatt’s friend and fellow activist Willie Barrow said the two talked on the phone everyday. Barrow recalled their early days in the labor movement.

“She said you got to help me fight. Because she was the only woman that was in the labor movement and they didn’t want her in there. And so I joined and she taught me how to fight and I’ve been fighting ever since,” Barrow said.

Speaking at Wyatt’s visitation Friday, Barrow said she doesn’t know if she can find a fighter like Wyatt. Then she wistfully added that someone will have to be trained.