During a time when the country so desperately needs to look to iconic civil rights leaders of the past in order to create a plan for progress in the future, front-line civil rights fighter the Rev. Willie Barrow has passed away at the age of 90.
Barrow was hospitalized for treatment of a blood clot in her lung and died early Thursday, fellow activist the Rev. Michael Pfleger told The Associated Press.
Barrow is not one of the most well-known fighters from the Civil Rights Movement. Her name is rarely brought up during Black History Month, and textbooks today probably won’t have her name among the many listed in their extensive indexes.
She was never the public face of the movement, but she was one of the many fighters on the front line who boldly pushed the Black community forward during what were some of the ugliest years of racism in American history.
She was one of the unsung heroes who served as a field organizer for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and marched with other Black leaders in Washington, D.C., and Selma, Alabama.
Her passion to fight for civil rights never diminished, and even during her final days she was focused on the progress of her community.
She took on a major role as an activist against the recent changes to the Voting Rights Act that have started chipping away at the very protections for Black voters that the Selma marches helped create. She was also focused on addressing Chicago’s growing issue of gun violence that has taken many young lives much too soon.
Barrow was also the co-founder of the Chicago chapter of Operation Breadbasket, which eventually grew into Operation PUSH.
According to Pfleger, she was an icon and the nation was fortunate to have welcomed her fiery spirit for nine decades.
“She’s one of those icons in the movement we’ve been able to hold onto for a long time, to learn from, to be loved by, to be challenged by,” Pfleger told The Associated Press.
For people who lived in Chicago, including President Barack Obama, the iconic activist was their very own “godmother.”
“To Michelle and me, she was a constant inspiration, a lifelong mentor, and a very dear friend,” the president said in a written statement. “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.”
Barrow’s time spent as an activist started when she was still just a young girl in school.
Rather than walk to school, she demanded that she be allowed on her school’s all-white bus.
“The fight for equality she joined that day would become the cause of her life,” President Obama said of the tenacious “Little Warrior.”
That’s how the many who never got to meet Barrow as Chicago’s godmother will remember her.
She was a woman who was “little” in stature but a “warrior” in spirit, grit, intelligence, passion and more.
“She was a great motivational speaker with the unusual gift of being able to take a scared group of people and inspire them to take militant nonviolent action to correct a wrong,” the Rev. Jesse Jackson said, according to The Associated Press. “She was an authentic freedom fighter in the linage of Sojourner Truth, Rosa Parks and Fannie Lou Hamer.”
“I opened my house up to all the powerful women in the movement — Coretta Scott King, Dorothy Height, Addie Wyatt,” she once told the Chicago Sun-Times. “That’s how I learned.”
That burning desire to always keep learning was key. It’s something she says the new wave of activists cannot forget.
The fight for a better future is rooted in learning from the leaders of the past. That’s why Barrow always urged the younger generation to take the time to learn about their history and train themselves to become leaders.
“We have to teach this generation,” she once said. “Train more Corettas, more Addies, more Dorothys. If these young people don’t know whose shoulder they stand on, they’ll take us back to slavery. And I believe that’s why the Lord is still keeping me here.”
Even as Barrow has passed, it is essential that her presence remains strong within the Black community, especially the youth, as it has become increasingly obvious that the push for civil rights is far from over.