Born on May 12, 1947, in Montgomery, Alabama, Tillman joined the civil rights movement at age sixteen. As a trainee and a field staff organizer for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), she fought for rights and political consciousness. She marched with King and was one of the first SCLC organizers to cross the Edmund-Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, on the infamous Bloody Sunday, a turning point in the battle to ensure the right to vote for African American citizens.
While in Chicago with King in 1965 to fight for the open housing plight, she met and married musician Jimmy Lee Tillman, with whom she has five children.
Tillman and her husband moved to San Francisco soon after they married. She brought the spirit of the civil rights movement with her, successfully mobilizing residents in her public housing community in a battle against the city for public transportation to their neighborhood, which she believed had been nonexistent based on racism and disrespect for the poor.
Upon moving back to Chicago, Tillman enrolled her children in a public school and organized concerned parents to fight for quality education. She eventually founded the Parent Equalizers of Chicago, which has been organized in more than 300 schools and sets the groundwork for school reform in the city.
In 1985, Tillman became the first woman to serve as alderman of Chicago's Third Ward and the only female elected official in the United States who worked on King's staff.
As a major political figure in Chicago, she has been highly involved in numerous community-building activities, especially projects related to issues of waning inner-city education, housing needs and homelessness. Tillman has also been an extremely influential player in the movement for slave reparations.
Tillman has received numerous awards and recognitions for her local, national and global activism and has been featured in various books and television features.