Friday, March 13, 2015

Rev. Barrow: the woman who propped up the image of Rev. Jesse Jackson

I’m almost hesitant to note the passing Thursday of the Rev. Willie T. Barrow – fearing anything I write will wind up being trite and unworthy of her significance to Chicago and to our society.

But her passing while being treated at Jackson Park Hospital for a blood clot near her lung is something that should be noted to people with an interest in the way Chicago has evolved.

SHE LIVED TO the age of 90 and engaged in many good works through the PUSH/Rainbow Coalition that have made our city a better place for us to live – even though I’m sure there are some cranks out there who are going to want to view her as part of the problem.

Personally, I dealt with Rev. Barrow off-and-on during the quarter-century that I have been a reporter-type person in the Chicago area. I’m not going to claim to be all-knowledgeable about her.

The impression I always gained was that she was the woman who kept the coalition operating while its late 1960s founder, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, was off galavanting around the world (he was in Morocco on Thursday, according to WTTW-TV), running for president and taking on crusade after crusade in which people’s rights were being stepped all over because of their skin complexion.

Jackson always gained his “credibility” from the Operation PUSH organization’s existence. It gave him that home base that allowed him to point to specific achievements back home.

BUT HIS REPEATED trips to far-off places to negotiate with hostile governments to get assorted hostages freed would not have been possible if someone hadn’t been running the shop back home.

Making sure that the daily routines and local business was being taken care of so that people back on the South Side neighborhoods were not being neglected.

That is the Rev. Barrow. We wouldn’t have a “Jesse Jackson,” senior or junior, of any public renown if she hadn’t been on the job.

Of course, it’s always possible that if we hadn’t had Rev. Jackson, Barrow herself would have become the predominant local civil rights leader.

AS CHICAGO TEACHERS Union President Karen Lewis said, “Rev. Barrow was a dynamo when it came to being a champion of justice for the citizens of Chicago, and for women and children in particular. Her stature (she was just under five feet tall) was small, but her spirit was gigantic, her energy boundless and her commitment unwavering.”

Chicago would be a lesser place had she never chosen to live and work here. Surely, her native Texas would be better off if it had made her feel more welcome as a child – she helped to lead a demonstration of rural black children who couldn’t get to school easily because the local school system in Burton viewed the expense of providing school buses to transport them as a waste of funds.

Their loss truly comes as Chicago’s gain, as she settled into our city after attending the Warner-Pacific Theological Seminary in Portland, Ore., then helping the Rev. Jackson and others to create the Operation Breadbasket organization that evolved into PUSH/Rainbow.

I realize that statements praising someone after their death are dime-a-dozen. They’re routine. They often resemble a race to see who can come up with the biggest platitudes the quickest.

ALTHOUGH THE PASSING of Barrow attracted attention from both President Barack Obama and his one-time chief of staff-turned-mayor Rahm Emanuel – the latter of whom issued the order that now has all flags at City Hall and other municipal buildings flying at half-staff in her honor.

But as Obama chose to phrase it, “We take comfort in the knowledge that our world is a far better place because she was a part of it.”

That just about says it all, even though I’m sure there are some Chicagoans who will foolishly believe that the recent passing of ballplayers like Ernie Banks or Minnie Miñoso – both of whom being the first black athletes to play for Chicago baseball clubs – were somehow more interesting.


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