Rev. Willie T. Barrow — the influential Chicago civil rights leader who was a key figure in such historical moments as the 1965 Selma marches for voting rights, Dr. Martin Luther King’s temporary residency in Chicago to protest urban housing conditions, and the founding of Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Operation Breadbasket on the South Side (which would eventually evolve into Rainbow/PUSH — died Thursday morning at approximately 2:30 a.m. after suffering a long illness. She was 90 years old.
Since then, political and organizational leaders across the city and country have released statements mourning Barrow’s passing. Below, we’ve compiled a sample of those statements.
Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, Sr.
Rev. Willie Taplin Barrow, “The Little Warrior” from Burton, Texas, made her transition last night. She is my sister beloved who was my co-worker for more than 50 years. She was a woman of unusual courage, character and ability. She was on Dr. King’s staff during the days of Operation Breadbasket, continued on my staff at Operation PUSH, was deeply involved in my two presidential campaigns as a delegate and as part of the Electoral College vote from Illinois, supported the National Rainbow Coalition, was active in the Rainbow PUSH Coalition and attended every Saturday morning community meeting that her health would permit. 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 non-violent action to correct a wrong.
Rev. Willie Barrow was a world citizen, traveling to North Vietnam, Russia, Nicaragua, Cuba and South Africa. She was in South Africa when Nelson Mandela was released from prison. She was a short woman in stature and humble woman in spirit, but her life and living made a global impact.
President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama
Reverend Willie T. Barrow was a Civil Rights icon and a Chicago institution, a “Little Warrior” in pursuit of justice for all God’s children. In 1936, when she was just 12 years old, Reverend Barrow demanded to be let on to her all-white school bus in Texas, and the fight for equality she joined that day would become the cause of her life. She marched with Dr. King on Washington and in Selma. She stood up for labor rights and women’s rights. She made one of the first pieces of the AIDS Memorial Quilt, and proudly welcomed LGBT brothers and sisters to the movement she helped lead.
Nowhere was Reverend Barrow’s impact felt more than in our hometown of Chicago. Through Operation Breadbasket, the Rainbow/PUSH coalition, and her beloved Vernon Park Church, she never stopped doing all she could to make her community a better place. 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.
Michelle and I are deeply saddened by Reverend Barrow’s passing, but we take comfort in the knowledge that our world is a far better place because she was a part of it. Our thoughts and prayers are with Reverend Barrow’s family, and with all those who loved her as we did.
U.S. Senator Richard J. Durbin (D-IL)
“Rev. Willie T. Barrow belongs in the Civil Rights Hall of Fame. From the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma to the streets of Chicago, Rev. Barrow fought for justice and stood up to those who would deny equality. Her passion for helping others, her steely determination and her winning smile will be missed, but her spirit will live on in the countless lives touched by her work.”
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel
From a teenager who demonstrated for equality in the segregated south to a revered Chicago icon who helped to found Operation Breadbasket, Reverend Barrow spent her life on the front lines in the fight for justice. She marched in Selma and played a pivotal role in persuading Dr. King to take his fight for equality to Chicago.
Known as ‘The Little Warrior,’ Rev. Barrow was small in frame but her voice was powerful, and contributed immeasurably to the cause of fairness, justice and opportunity in our community and the nation. We mourn her loss but give thanks for the impactful life she lived.
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.”
Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia
“I join Chicago and the nation in mourning the loss of Rev. Willie Taplin Barrow, known to those who loved her as ‘The Little Warrior.’ If ever the term ‘Renaissance Woman’ was a suitable title, it certainly applies to Rev. Barrow. She was a member of the second Great Migration of African Americans from the Deep South in pursuit of justice and economic opportunity. She became an ordained minister as well as an accomplished musician. She became a skilled welder, working in a shipyard during World War II. She organized for greater opportunity for women in the trades and became a leader in the labor movement.
“Where there was a fight for justice–large or small–at the international or at the neighborhood level–Willie Barrow was there, and she spoke out fearlessly. She was a source of inspiration and encouragement to our young people. Her fearlessness, lifelong commitment, and warm, beautiful personality will remain with us as we continue to work to fulfill her vision of a Chicago filled with peace, opportunity, and fairness.”
Chicago Urban League
As an activist for women and the disenfranchised, she inspired us to challenge the status quo and demand equality and access to educational and economic opportunities. Her mantra “we are not so much divided as we are disconnected” challenges us to work past racial, gender and socioeconomic divides to improve the world we live in.
“The Chicago Urban League joins the world in mourning her loss. Although she is no longer with us, Rev. Barrow’s rich legacy will forever remain as a testament to her phenomenal life and career.”