Rev. Willie Barrow dies at 90

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Friday, March 13, 2015
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Reverend Willie Taplin Barrow died peacefully at 2:30 a.m. Thursday at the age of 90 at home surrounded by family.

CHICAGO (WLS) -- She was a civil rights icon hailed for her unwavering pursuit of justice. Reverend Willie Taplin Barrow died peacefully at 2:30 a.m. Thursday at the age of 90 at home surrounded by family.

Barrow was released from Jackson Park Hospital last week, but had been undergoing treatment for a blood clot in her lung.

Just a few months ago, Reverend Willie Taplin Barrow celebrated her 90th birthday. Born December 17, 1924, she was raised in segregated Burton, Texas, on a farm with six siblings.

"I grew up on a farm milking cows and picking cotton, and now I'm picking presidents," she said.

"Her drive came from where she started and the things she saw in Texas and the names she was called and all the injustices she saw," said Rev. Jerald January, Vernon Park Church of God.

Young Willie Taplin first became socially active as a student in the 1930s. At 10 years old, she walked ten miles to school while white students rode the bus.

"My feet started hurting me one morning, and I jumped on the bus with the white kids, and they started screaming," she said.

She married her late husband, Clyde Barrow, and moved to Chicago in 1945. The two were married for 56 years -- inspiring her book "How To Get Married... And Stay Married." Their son, Keith Barrow, died of AIDS at age 29.

"I put together one of the first quilts on AIDS in his name, and it's traveling around the world," Rev. Barrow said.

Though Reverend Barrow was barely five-feet tall, the woman known as "the little warrior" stood shoulder-to-shoulder with giants in the Civil Rights Movement. The ordained minister served as a field organizer for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. And the Southern Christian Leadership Conference during the 1950s and 1960s. Her work extended to the historic 1963 march on Washington and the 1965 march on Selma, Alabama.

"When I got to Selma, everybody was out there. They said you cannot get off the bus because the Ku Klux Klan is here. They are out there. They're gonna shoot or kill anybody that's coming down to support Dr. King," Rev. Barrow said.

Rev. Barrow spent the last several decades as co-chairperson of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition. She had co-founded the organization's predecessor "Operation Breadbasket" with Reverend Jesse Jackson. Rev. Barrow also served as campaign manager for Jackson's 1984 presidential bid.

"She is my sister beloved who was my co-worker for more than 50 years," Rev. Jackson said in a statement. "She was a woman of unusual courage, character and ability."

"She's Chicago's Rosa Parks, she's been the consistent fighter for justice," said Father Michael Pfleger, St. Sabina Catholic Church.

VIDEO: Chicagoans remember Rev. Willie Barrow

Her goal for race relations was to see everyone united.

"I don't have nothing no more unless I have a mixed crowd. It's got to be white women. It's got to be black women. It's got to be Hispanic women. We got to get together," she said.

Barrow's remarks on Rosa Parks after her passing in 2005 may well have been describing her own legacy as a champion for women.

"As a woman, she took on the injustices of this nation. As a woman!" Barrow said. "She was convinced that she wanted freedom, not just for herself, but for everybody.

In September 1997, a street on Chicago's South Side was renamed in Reverend Barrow's honor. Earlier that same year, the Reverend Willie Barrow Wellness Center was opened inside the University of Chicago's Doctors Hospital to treat those with limited health-care benefits.

"I have ordered flags at all city facilities lowered in Rev. Barrow's memory, and offer our thoughts and prayers to her family and many friends," Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said.

"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," said President Obama in a statement.

A celebration of Barrow's life will be held at Rainbow PUSH headquarters next Thursday, March 19.

Visitation is Friday, March 20 at Vernon Park Church of God from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. The funeral will be that night at 7 p.m.