Wyatt Tee Walker

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Wyatt Tee Walker (born 16 August 1929) is an African American pastor, national civil rights leader, theologian, and cultural historian. He was a chief of staff for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and in 1958 became an early board member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). He helped found a Congress for Racial Equality (CORE) chapter in 1958. As executive director of the SCLC from 1960 to 1964, Walker helped to bring the group to national prominence.

Walker started as pastor at historic Gillfield Baptist Church in Petersburg, Virginia, where he entered the Civil Rights Movement. For 37 years Walker was senior pastor at [Canaan Baptist Church of Christ]] in Harlem, New York, where he also co-founded the Religious Action Network of Africa Action to oppose apartheid in South Africa, and chaired the Central Harlem Local Development Corporation.



Walker was born in Massachusetts, raised primarily in New Jersey and received his college education at Virginia Union University. After earning his degree, in 1953 Walker was called as pastor at historic Gillfield Baptist Church, the second oldest black church in Petersburg, Virginia and one of the oldest in the nation. In his leadership for social justice and against segregation, he was arrested numerous times, the first for leading an African-American group into the "white" library in Petersburg. His "flamboyant" and cheeky style was shown as he "caused a stir" by trying to "check out Douglas Southall Freeman's admiring biography of Robert E. Lee."[1] In 1953 Walker worked with citizens who filed suit in federal court for access to a public pool in Lee Park. The city closed the park in 1954 rather than integrate. The park later reopened, but the city never operated the pool again.

Walker's leadership extended to two major civil rights organizations in Virginia: he served as president for five years of the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and as state director of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), which he co-founded in 1958.[2] Walker was also a founder of the Petersburg Improvement Association (PIA), modeled after the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) in Alabama. It worked to develop strategies against segregation and to ensure publicity for its activities.[3][4] By May 1960 the PIA had 3,000 members.[5] By conducting sit-ins in 1960 at the Trailways bus terminal, Walker and PIA members gained agreement by the president of the Bus Terminal Restaurants to desegregate lunch counters in Petersburg and several other Virginia cities. This was achieved the year before the Freedom Riders arrived in 1961.[6]

Through these years Walker became increasingly close to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the Civil Rights Movement and later served as his chief of staff. In 1957 Walker helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).[7] In 1958 King chose Walker for the board of SCLC.[3][8] Walker spent the next two years building the organization in Virginia by capitalizing on his network of relationships with clergy throughout the state from his activities with NAACP and CORE.[3] He also worked on continuing demonstrations and actions intended to highlight, challenge and end segregation.

Atlanta, Georgia

At King's invitation, Walker moved to Atlanta as the first full-time executive director of the SCLC. During his leadership of 1960–1964, he brought the organization to "national power" in its efforts to bring about an end to legal segregation of African Americans.[9] He used his management strengths to improve administration and fundraising, and coordinated the far-ranging activities of the staff. Walker was aided by two close assistants whom he brought from the PIA, Dorothy Cotton and James Wood.[3]

According to historian Taylor Branch, Walker preached "dazzling sermons" in support of the student sit-ins that sparked the second phase of civil rights organizing after 1960.[8] In addition, Walker was the chief strategist and tactician for "Project C", the detailed plan for confrontation with local police and city officials that was the heart of the first phase of the Birmingham Campaign in 1963.[9] Assisted by local movement secretary Lola Hendricks, Walker meticulously researched protest targets, timed the walking distance from the 16th Street Baptist Church, headquarters for the campaign, to the downtown area; surveyed the segregated lunch counters of department stores; and listed federal buildings as secondary targets should police block the protesters' entrance into primary targets such as stores, libraries, and all-white churches. He ensured the campaign would receive national attention and build support for the cause.[10] The events captured important national media attention and coverage, and Walker himself discussed these efforts in detail in an interview with Robert Penn Warren for the book Who Speaks for the Negro?.[11] This was critical for gaining national support among American citizens and the Kennedy administration for the movement and its goals.[3] Walker also helped organize and participated in the 1963 March on Washington. In 1964 and 1965 he celebrated the movement's successes when President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act.

From 1964 to 1966 Walker worked with a new publishing venture, the Negro Heritage Library, which he headed as president in 1966. He worked with school boards and systems to expand curricula to improve coverage of African-American history and literature, and to add appropriate books to school libraries.[3]

Harlem, New York

In 1967 Walker was called as senior pastor of the influential Canaan Baptist Church of Christ in Harlem, New York, where he commanded a major pulpit in the struggle for tolerance and social justice. He also continued to compose sacred music. He connected his studies of other traditions to the use of music in the black church and social movements.[9] Walker helped teach people about the relationship between movements around the world. During the years in which Africans sought independence, Walker hosted numerous leaders from the continent, including Nelson Mandela of South Africa, who were active in struggles against colonialism and apartheid.

During the 1970s Walker served as Urban Affairs Specialist to Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller, helping advise in a volatile social environment. In 1975 he completed his doctorate at Colgate Rochester Divinity School. In his graduate studies and research, Walker also studied at the University of Ife in Nigeria and the University of Ghana.[12] During these years in Harlem, he wrote and published books on the relation of music and social movements, and community development.[8]

Walker was increasingly active in the anti-apartheid movement, which had a strong base in the African-American community. In 1978 he founded the International Freedom Mobilization to draw attention to the abuses of apartheid in South Africa.[9] He served on the National Committee on the American Committee on Africa (ACOA) (since 2001 called Africa Action). In the 1980s he served on the ACOA Board, including as president.

In 1988 Walker was co-founder of the Religious Action Network (RAN) of the ACOA, together with Canon Frederick B. Williams of the Church of the Intercession in Harlem. This was during the height of the anti-apartheid struggle. RAN is a network of over 300 congregations throughout the U.S.

Walker also used the church's leadership in local economic and community development, writing about their efforts in The Harvard Paper: The African-American Church and Economic Development (1994). He was chair of the Central Harlem Local Development Corporation, to generate affordable housing units in Harlem to fill a critical need.

Because of Walker's leading role in the Civil Rights Movement, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library collected his papers from the period of 1963–1982. They include both personal and official correspondence, papers and lectures on a wide variety of topics, and are available for research.[8]

Since college, Walker has been a member of the Gamma Chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity.[13]

Return to Virginia

After 37 years as senior pastor, Walker retired in 2004 with the title of pastor emeritus of Canaan Baptist Church. He lives in Virginia and teaches at the Samuel DeWitt Proctor School of Theology at his alma mater Virginia Union University in Richmond.

Marriage and family

He married Theresa Ann Walker before 1963.[8] They had four children together,[14] and two grandchildren.

Selected books

Walker has long been interested in the relationship between music, the black religious tradition, and social change, and published several books on this topic. This topic was also the center of his doctoral work for his PhD in 1975.[15] These include:

  • 1979 – Somebody’s Calling My Name: Black Sacred Music and Social Change (Judson Press)
  • 1984 – The Soul of Black Worship: A Trilogy – Preaching, Praying, Singing (Self-published)
  • 1985 – Road to Damascus: A Journey of Faith, New York: Martin Luther King Fellows Press
  • 1986 – Common Thieves: A Tithing Manual for Christians and Others, New York: Martin Luther King Fellows Press
  • 1991 – Gospel in the Land of the Rising Sun, New York: Martin Luther King Fellows Press
  • 1994 – The Harvard Paper: The African-American Church and Economic Development, New York: Martin Luther King Fellows Press
  • 1997 – A Prophet from Harlem Speaks: Sermons & Essays, New York: Martin Luther King Fellows Press

Legacy and honors

See also


  1. Raymond Arsenault, Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice, New York: Oxford University Press, 2006, p.115
  2. "Wyatt Tee Walker", JRank Encyclopedia, accessed 5 Jan 2009
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 "Wyatt Tee Walker". King Encyclopedia. Stanford University. Retrieved 31 December 2008.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. Frederic O. Sargent, Bill Maxwell, The Civil Rights Revolution: Events and Leaders, 1955–1968, Jefferson, NC: McFarland Publishing, 2004, p.163
  5. Martin Luther King, Clayborne Carson, Peter Holloran, et al., The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992, p.463
  6. Arsenault (2006), Freedom Riders, p. 115
  7. "Rev. Wyatt Tee Walker", Civil Rights Digital Library, accessed 1 Jan 2009
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 8.4 "Inventory of the Wyatt Tee Walker Papers, 1963–1982, n.d.", Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library, 2000, accessed 31 Dec 2008
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 Davis W. Houck and David E. Dixon, "Rev. Wyatt Tee Walker", Rhetoric, Religion and the Civil Rights Movement, 1954–1965, Baylor University Press, 2006, p.533, accessed 31 Dec 2008
  10. David Garrow, ed., Birmingham, Alabama, 1956–1963: The Black Struggle for Civil Rights, Carlson Publishing, 1989, pp. 176–177
  11. Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities. "Wyatt Tee Walker". Robert Penn Warren's Who Speaks for the Negro? Archive. Retrieved 25 February 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. Rev. Wyatt Tee Walker, Alumni, Virginia Union University, accessed 1 Jan 2009
  13. "Wyatt Tee Walker", Prominent Alphas, Religious Leaders, Website of Alpha Chapter, Alpha Phi Alpha, accessed 31 Dec 2008
  14. "About Rev. Dr. Wyatt Tee Walker", Wyatt Tee Walker Website, accessed 1 Jan 2009
  15. 15.0 15.1 "Dr. Wyatt Tee Walker", International Civil Rights Walk of Fame Inductees, Official Website, accessed 30 Dec 2008

Additional reading

  • Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954–63, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988
  • Charles D. Lowery and John F. Marszalek, eds. Encyclopedia of African-American Civil Rights: From Emancipation to the Present, New York: Greenwood Press, 1992

External links