Reverend Wyatt

Maggie Sivit

The Reverend Addie Wyatt’s career in social activism began simply enough. Her first job was on the assembly line of Armour & Company in 1941, which, from a background of small means, was a job that paid well–but it was not the position she had applied for. On a Friday, she filled out an application to be a typist at the Chicago meatpacking company, a job for which Wyatt was more than qualified, tapping at a rate of over 60 words per minute. But when Monday morning came around, she found herself packing stew and sealing the tops of cans on the line. When she asked for an explanation, looking to file a union grievance, she discovered that the company had never intended to hire her: they did not hire black typists for the front office. And so began a passion for the labor and civil rights movements that would reshape the history of the South Side.

After Wyatt passed away last month at 88 years old, a crowd of hundreds, including former Illinois Senator Carol Moseley Braun and the Reverend Jesse Jackson, packed into Wyatt’s church–Vernon Park Church of God on 90th and Stony Island–to pay respects to this legacy.

Having served as the first female, African American senior officer in any American labor union in 1953, Wyatt quickly became known as a forceful campaigner in the Chicago Freedom Movement. At the center of Chicago’s maelstrom of civil change, Wyatt worked as a community organizer, a pastor, and the co-founder of Operation Breadbasket–a Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) program fostering faith and helping feed hundreds of underprivileged families across the country.

Wyatt’s legacy of activism “extended far beyond the South Side of Chicago,” as Dr. Carol Adams, CEO and president of the DuSable Museum of African American history, made clear. “She was,” Dr. Adams remarked, “an international labor leader at a time when it was rare for a woman, of any race, to ascend to such a position.” Indeed, Wyatt’s work as a labor advisor for the SCLC led her all the way to Selma, Alabama, where she marched alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. By 1974, Wyatt was appointed to a labor commission by Eleanor Roosevelt and founded the National Organization of Women (NOW), which still exists as the largest feminist organization in the country.

The part of  Wyatt’s character that will never fade in the memory of those who knew her  was her unparalleled  ability to bring people together. “In whatever battleground for social and human rights compelled her participation,” Adams recalled, “she was a warrior.” Reverend Willie Barrow, another illustrious figure on the front lines of civil rights and a long-time friend of Wyatt’s, said of her, “People. That was Rev. Wyatt’s lifelong work. Church people, labor people. Fighting for black people in business, and fighting for <i>women</i> in businesses. All of them.”

Reverend Barrow’s life in social activism frequently intersected with Wyatt’s, as they co-headed Operation Breadbasket (now the Jackson-led Rainbow/PUSH Coalition) in the early ’60s. “We started doing community service together. We were from the same church, and we became very good friends then and we were friends ever since–for 55 years. She did everything in the community. She even taught music.”

Even today, aspiring protesters on the South Side would do well to remember the Reverend’s battle-tested life. Rev. Barrow evoked protests of old, when “Rev. Wyatt, always the great organizer, brought the whole community together on Woodlawn.” Elsewhere, of course, Rainbow/PUSH, with Rev. Barrow and Rev. Jackson still at the helm, continue to promote civil rights and combat the social injustices facing people from Chicago to Oakland to New York. In this way, Rev. Wyatt’s inspirational work and passion endures in a host of civic issues within the country.

It would only be fair, however, to remember how far these same cities, these local communities have come–to remember too all of the successes the Reverend had a part in. “In all the triumphs of the civil rights movement,” Adams maintains, “Rev. Wyatt’s legacy lives on today.”