The Rev. Willie T. Barrow, a Chicago civil rights leader known as the "Little Warrior" for her small stature and determination to fight for equality, died on Thursday at age 90.
Barrow died at her Chicago home. She was recently hospitalized for a blood clot in her lung, The Chicago Sun-Times reported.
Barrow started her career in the civil rights movement when she was just 12 years old, demanding to be allowed to ride on an all-white school bus in her native Texas. She became an organizer for Martin Luther King Jr. and marched with him in Washington, D.C., and in Selma, Alabama.
Barrow helped organize the Chicago chapter of Operation Breadbasket, which was dedicated to improving economic conditions in black communities, and she was important in persuading King to take his civil rights work to Chicago.
President Barack Obama, a former community organizer in Chicago, said that for him and his wife, Michelle Obama, Barrow 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," the president said in a statement.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr., head of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, a civil rights organization that grew out of Operation Breadbasket, called Barrow an "authentic freedom fighter" in the lineage of Sojourner Truth, Rosa Parks and Fannie Lou Hamer.
"In sickness and death, her body was frail, but her spirit and good works were never feeble," he said. "Her flame of hope, freedom and justice will forever burn."
Jackson noted that Barrow traveled to Nicaragua, Cuba, North Vietnam and Russia and was in South Africa when Nelson Mandela was released from prison.
Barack Obama said Barrow also stood up for labor rights and women's rights, welcomed gays and lesbians into the civil rights movement and made one of the first pieces of the AIDS Memorial Quilt.
Barrow said she always sought to be close to those with power in the civil rights movement. "I opened my house up to all of the powerful women in the movement — Coretta Scott King, Dorothy Height, Addie Wyatt," she once 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."
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel ordered flags lowered at city facilities in honor of Barrow's memory.