12/13/2010 05:13 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Civil Rights Icon Rev. Barrow Looks Back

The Rev. Willie Barrow's phone started ringing at 7 AM and didn't stop. I know, because as her goddaughter and house guest at her South Shore bungalow, I was there for her 86th birthday on December 7. The next to youngest of seven children with the death of her sister Lula Mae a few years ago, she is the only one still here.

The ivory sofa in her living room, she tells me, is the same sofa where Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and others slept because back in the day, most hotels wouldn't rent rooms to African-Americans. So when they traveled to other cities, they had to stay at friends' homes.

Golden-colored draperies and sheer white curtains hang from her living room's huge bay windows as the sun comes streaming in. Propped up on her piano in a corner are so many framed pictures of her with so many different people, but one of my favorites is of her and Oprah, who is wearing a purplish blue sparkling dress with a scribbled note to "Queen Mother Rev. Barrow." Rev. Barrow loves to remember how Oprah, at age 15, was an intern for her.

My other favorite photo is of her godson, President Obama, bending over to reach all four feet and eleven inches of her, planting a big kiss on her cheek -- and then there's the doll on her end table, a replica of First Lady Michelle Obama wearing her Inauguration Day ballgown.

Also on the piano is just one book, but it's a heavy one, President Bill Clinton's autobiography, inscribed to "my friend." It is quite a moment, sitting on her couch where so many others have sat before me, reading from President Clinton's My Life. I happened to open it to the page where Clinton talks about getting a "shellacking" during the 1994 midterm elections -- the same term President Obama used for his recent midterm election treatment.

In the early evening, there was an intimate gathering at her friend Josephine Wade's restaurant, Captain's Hard Time Dining at E. 79th Street. The name "Hard Time" was not lost on me, since our lawmakers were deciding whether to extend tax cuts and unemployment benefits while we ate our chicken dinners. That's the same Josephine Wade who served chicken and peach cobbler to Dr. King when he stopped in Chicago. Still a popular watering hole for community activists and Chicago politicians, newly elected Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle showed up, as did Rep. Danny Davis and Sen. Roland Burris, both running for mayor, although Burris was wavering. Burris led the birthday singing.

Known as "The Little Warrior," Rev. Barrow reminisced how Rev. Jesse Jackson always liked to bring her to the table with him for tense negotiations because she looked the other side straight in the eye. The chair emeritus of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition chuckled, saying she was good at eyeballing the opposition.

As her goddaughter, I don't think of her as "The Little Warrior" so much as "The Little Engine that Could." That has been her message to the young to continue the fight for justice and equal rights, and not to forget and lose the gains already made. She rues the lack of mandatory civil rights and black history courses in the schools and fears that the younger generation has forgotten or never known this aspect of our nation's history.

For example, many of us aren't aware that it was Rev. Barrow, at 12 years old, who integrated the school buses in Burton, Texas near Houston, years before Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott. Rev. Barrow said she just jumped on the bus when it stopped at a traffic light and refused to get off, despite the name calling by the other students who were using the "n-word."

As we sat around her dinner table the day after her birthday with a Hyde Park couple, she spoke about how real wealth is not in money but in relationships. Then she reiterated that we are not so much divided as we are disconnected from one another. That we all need to become more connected.

In an effort to make sure the younger generation does not forget, Pastor Jerald January at the Vernon Park Church of God, where Rev. Barrow is also a minister, is building the "Willie Taplin Barrow Civil Rights Institute" in Lynwood, Illinois, which will include a civil rights museum, library and archives to preserve civil rights history, especially as it relates to Chicago and Illinois with an emphasis on the role of women. Private and governmental funding is being sought for the $12 million project.