Remembering longtime civil rights activist Rev. Willie Barrow | WBEZ
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Remembering longtime civil rights activist Rev. Willie Barrow

They called her “Little Warrior.”

Her 4-foot-11 frame could not contain her spirit.

“A female I was born, a woman, I grew to be, a mother I’m proud to be, a Christian I chose to be and a minister I was called to be. And with all them ‘bes’ going from me, I can be anything I’m big enough to be,” Barrow used to tell her audiences.

Barrow was just a little girl, in a little town in Texas. It used to be, Barrow and other black children in the rural town of Burton, had to walk some 10 miles to get school--while their white classmates got a ride.

“One morning I just got tired,” Barrow told the National Visionary Leadership Project. “So I jumped on the back of the bus where the white kids were and they was, ‘Oooooo, you can’t do this,’ and they just start screaming. And one little girl says, ‘yes she can ride...yes she can ride.’”

Barrow was just 12 years old at the time — she had no plan or agenda. And this was almost 20 years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama bus.

“I said, ‘y’all can kill me if you wanna, but I said I’m tired.’ I didn’t know anything about civil rights, I didn’t know anything about that...I was just tired,” Barrow remembered.

And that’s really how Rev. Barrow lived and led: Fair was fair, right was right. Color, gender, class...it didn’t matter.

Barrow worked as a field organizer for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr; she planned marches and demonstrations — arranged transportation and shelter.

In the 1960s, she and Rev. Jesse Jackson co-founded Operation Breadbasket — a precursor to the Rainbow PUSH Coalition. She said Rev. Jackson articulated people’s problems — she brought the muscle.

“When Jesse would get through preaching or speaking, he would go in the back and talk with somebody,” she said.

Meantime, she and Rev. Dr. Calvin Morris would be out with the people, finding out about their problems.

“The phone rings, Jesse gone to the airport but I gotta be there to answer that phone. But not just answer and say, ‘he’s not here,’ but to service those people,” Barrow said.

When grocery stores in African-American neighborhoods in Chicago were stocked with higher-priced, lower-quality goods — she took action. Barrow and some other women drove around to the white grocery stores and out to the suburbs, surveying the prices — with facts in hand she helped organize boycotts, which led to better products and prices.

When her son Keith came out — she worked for gay rights.

And when he became infected with HIV and later died from AIDS in 1983, she said no one dared ask how he died — so she told them.

Barrow fought the fear around the epidemic with her humanity and humility. She fought for equitable health treatment. And her spirit enlivened a call for that cause as news of her passing spread.

Rainbow PUSH’s Rev. Janette Wilson was joined by other faith leaders Thursday to renew calls for a trauma center on the city’s South Side, where she says young people are dying in the streets.

“Rev. Barrow would say, we cannot rest when our children and people who cannot fight for themselves — when their lives are at risk. She was a little warrior and she would be perhaps marching over to meet with somebody today,” Wilson said.

But Rev. Barrow had not been in good health recently. Last week, she was admitted to Jackson Park Hospital, where she was treated for a blood clot. After days in the ICU, she told those closest to her, including her pastor, Rev. Jerald January, that she wanted to be home when she entered her final season.

“About two days ago, the nurse was telling me she wasn’t really talking but she heard her yelling at somebody,” January began. “And she went in the room and it’s like she was looking at somebody that no one else could see and she told them, ‘Just wait a minute, I’ll be there in a little while...’ Like she was telling heaven, ‘Just wait one more day.’ And, that’s what she had,” he recalled.

January prays that her spirit is regenerated in others.

Veronica Morris-Moore is a member of Fearless Leading by the Youth; she’s one of the young people calling for a South Side trauma center.

She said she never had the honor to meet Rev. Barrow but she’d definitely heard of her and her work.

“Women like that, particularly for me as a black woman, it’s always an honor and a pleasure to know that those women exist. Because as a young person that gives me strong shoulders to stand on,” said Morris-Moore.

Rev. Willie Taplin Barrow was 90 years old. She was indeed, a very small woman--but a giant in every other measure.  

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