Remembering Rev. Addie Wyatt: Chicago's Little Engine Who Could

The Rev. Addie Wyatt, the woman who rolled up her sleeves to help others and worked shoulder-to-shoulder with the likes of former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and President John F. Kennedy and was a mentor to President Barack Obama in his community organizing as a young man, will be laid to rest Easter weekend on Chicago's South Side.

Former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt in 1961 appointed Chicago's own Rev. Addie Wyatt, a nationally known leader in the fight for the rights of women, union workers, and minorities to a labor legislative committee as part of President John F. Kennedy's Commission on the Status of Women. But with this prestigious national appointment, Rev. Wyatt was just getting started. There was much more to be done.

In 1974 in Chicago, Wyatt co-founded the Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW), a nonprofit promoting affirmative action and improving the lot of trade union women affiliated with the AFL-CIO.

Two years later, she became the first female international vice president of the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen of North America. She also served on the Governor's Commission on the Status of Women in Illinois and was active with the National Organization for Women (NOW).

A friend of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. through the civil rights movement, she became involved with Operation Breadbasket. There she met Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, Sr. and Rev. Willie Taplin Barrow. They became lifelong friends. Operation Breadbasket evolved into what is today the Rainbow PUSH Coalition headquartered at 930 East 50th Street in Chicago.

Rev. Wyatt was born on March 8th, 1924. Of course, it was just like Addie to be born during Women's History Month. Always a woman of perfect timing. (No matter that it hadn't yet been designated as such at the time of her birth.)

She celebrated her 88th birthday, which turned out to be her last, in many celebrations throughout the month of March, including on the Feast of the Annunciation when the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary to announce the good news she would have a son and he would be named Jesus. To the many she helped along the way, this ordained minister was their angel.

Addie's "sister" in the civil rights movement was Chair Emeritus of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition Rev. Barrow, my godmother. The two were so close they talked by phone every day since meeting over 60 years ago. They were even born the same year. Most Sundays after church, the two friends, now widows, dined together.

As godmother Barrow tells it, "Addie called me and I called her. We discussed what was happening in Chicago and the world. We were both ministers, union members and deeply involved in the civil rights movement. We shopped together. We sang in the church choir together. We picked up people to take them to church. We both played the piano. We were so close that now with Addie's passing, it looks like to me that I am gone. But she was tired, she told me on her birthday. She had a 62-year marriage and stayed married, separated only by the death of her husband two years ago. They were truly until death do us part."

Civil rights activist and retired Sears executive George O'Hare of Willowbrook said Addie and Claude Wyatt were one of the first couples he met in the Civil Rights movement years ago. "She was very outgoing and connected with people easily." O'Hare added that even though he is white, she made him feel welcome, and one of her strengths was introducing people to each other. They became fast friends upon first meeting. "She was a leader. A leader at a time when women were not accepted as leaders."

As for me, the last time I saw Rev. Addie Wyatt was on Halloween Eve when my godmother and I had dinner at her house following church services at the Vernon Park Church of God on Chicago's South Side, a church founded by Rev. Wyatt with her husband Rev. Dr. Claude Wyatt. All three preached there from the time of its founding in 1955.

I remember Addie on that sunny fall afternoon in her wheelchair with her lively eyes so interested in everything and everyone as she spoke barely above a whisper. She wore a fuchsia colored blouse with her well-coiffed chestnut brown hair framing her face. She kept urging us to eat more wings, beans and rice and to take some home with us, which we did. It was a perfect day. We were all smiling. We never wanted it to end.

A student at Chicago's DuSable High School but born in Brookhaven, Mississippi, her family moved to Chicago during the Great Depression of the 1930s. She grew up in the Bronzeville neighborhood.

Rev. Wyatt died Wednesday, March 28th at Chicago's Advocate Trinity Hospital. She had not been in good health.

Survived by her son Claude Wyatt III and her sister Maude McKay and lots of grandchildren, there will be a public viewing from 11 am to 7 pm on Good Friday and again at 9:30 am preceding the noon to 2 PM funeral service on Holy Saturday of Easter Week at her church where she preached, Vernon Park Church of God located at 9011 South Stony Island in Chicago. To be followed by a burial service at Oak Woods Cemetery, 1035 East 67th Street at Cottage Grove on Chicago's South Side.

Rev. Addie Wyatt, a true trailblazer and pioneer for women, union workers and minorities no matter what the cost to her personally. The Little Engine Who Could.