The Rev. Willie Barrow dies at 90; longtime civil rights activist

Willie T. Barrow, Jesse Jackson Jr., Harold Washington
The Rev. Willie Barrow, left, confers with the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Chicago Mayor Harold Washington during an Operation PUSH convention in 1986.
(Associated Press)

The Rev. Willie Barrow, a front-line civil rights fighter for decades and a mentor to younger generations of activists, has died in Chicago. She was 90.

Barrow was a field organizer for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., marched on Washington and Selma in the 1960s and more recently focused on Chicago’s gun violence and changes to the Voting Rights Act.

Barrow had been hospitalized for treatment of a blood clot in her lung and died early Thursday, said the Rev. Michael Pfleger, a fellow activist.

“She’s one of those icons in the movement we’ve been able to hold on to for a long time, to learn from, to be loved by, to be challenged by,” Pfleger said.


Barrow helped organize sit-ins and boycotts in the South with civil rights icons including King, Rosa Parks and the Rev. Ralph Abernathy.

Alongside the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Barrow co-founded the Chicago chapter of Operation Breadbasket, which would become Operation PUSH.

Around Chicago, she was known to many as “godmother” or “mother” for the care she took to advise and inform younger activists.

“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,” Jackson said. “She was an authentic freedom fighter in the lineage of Sojourner Truth, Rosa Parks and Fannie Lou Hamer.”


Known as the “little warrior,” Barrow was of short height that belied a fiery, charismatic, tell-it-like-it-is attitude unchecked by either concern for political correctness or the stature of whomever she was addressing.

She took up causes as varied as women’s rights and AIDS awareness. Her son, Keith, died of the disease in 1983. And she traveled widely on missions of peace and outreach, including to Vietnam, Russia, Nicaragua, Cuba and to South Africa when Nelson Mandela was released from prison.

Barrow was born Dec. 7, 1924, in Burton, Texas. In 1936, as a child, Barrow demanded to be let on to her all-white school bus.

“The fight for equality she joined that day would become the cause of her life,” President Obama said in a written statement that lauded Barrow for her “pursuit of justice for all God’s children.”

“To Michelle and me, she was a constant inspiration, a lifelong mentor and a very dear friend,” Obama said. “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 studied at the Warner Pacific School of Theology in Portland, Ore., and moved to Chicago in 1945.

Becoming involved in the civil rights movement, Barrow said, she always sought to be close to those with power.

“I opened my house up to all of the powerful women in the movement — Coretta Scott King, Dorothy Height, Addie Wyatt,” she told the Chicago Sun-Times. “That’s how I learned.”


And she wanted to pass that wisdom on to others.

“We have to teach this generation, train more Corettas, more Addies, more Dorothys,” she told the newspaper. “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.”

Keyser writes for the Associated Press.