Described by Martin Luther King as “one of the keenest minds of the nonviolent revolution,” Wyatt Tee Walker served as executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) from 1960 to 1964 (Press release, 23 June 1964).
Walker was born 16 August 1929, in Brockton, Massachusetts, to John Wise and Maude Pinn Walker. Walker graduated Magna Cum Laude in 1950 from Virginia Union University in Richmond, Virginia, with a BS in both chemistry and physics. He then entered Virginia Union’s Graduate School of Religion, serving as student body president before receiving his BD in 1953. At a meeting of the Inter-Seminary Movement, Walker met King, then a student at Crozer Theological Seminary.
In 1953 Walker accepted a position as minister at Gillfield Baptist Church in Petersburg, Virginia. Walker also held a number of leadership roles with local civil rights organizations. He served as president of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and as state director of the Congress of Racial Equality. He was also a founder of the Virginia Council on Human Relations, a biracial group working for desegregation, and led the Petersburg Improvement Association, which was modeled after the Montgomery Improvement Association.
In 1959 Walker organized and led the first local Prayer Pilgrimage for Public Schools, an event that protested Virginia state officials’ attempts to block public school integration. The same year, Walker also joined the board of SCLC. In January 1960 King spoke at the second annual Prayer Pilgrimage and in March of that year Walker decided to remain in jail after being arrested protesting segregation in the Petersburg Library. Meanwhile, King had mailed him an offer to become SCLC’s new executive director. King expressed confidence that Walker “would bring into full grown maturity an organization that is presently a sleeping giant” (Papers 5:385). Walker replaced Ella Baker, who had served as interim director since John Lee Tilley’s resignation in 1959. Walker subsequently moved to Atlanta with his family. He brought Dorothy Cotton and James R. Wood, two of his closest assistants from the Petersburg Improvement Association, with him to SCLC.
A firm administrator, Walker worked to bring order to the organization’s fundraising efforts and the wide-ranging activities of its staff. Walker was also a key tactician, authoring and evaluating protest strategies, including “Project C,” the basis for SCLC’s Birmingham Campaign in 1963. SCLC benefited from Walker’s advice on organizational structure and strategy. Walker described himself as someone “who didn’t care about being loved to get it done—I didn’t give a damn about whether people liked me, but I knew I could do the job,” an attitude exemplary of a heavy-handed leadership style that occasionally fueled SCLC staff tensions (Eskew, 37). Walker’s leadership style also alienated some young activists affiliated with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
Such conflicts were the motivating forces behind Walker’s eventual resignation from SCLC in 1964. When Walker was replaced by SCLC staff member Andrew Young, he went on to work as vice president of a new publishing venture, the Negro Heritage Library. In 1965 he became president of the organization, which sought to increase the attention paid to black history in school curricula. Walker and King maintained contact in the years following Walker’s resignation, and King preached at his 1968 installation service at Canaan Baptist Church, praising Walker as “a tall man, tall in stature, tall in courage,” who contributed significantly to SCLC (King, 24 March 1968).
Walker remained active in religion and social change activities after leaving SCLC. In 1975 he received his D.Min. from Colgate-Rochester Divinity School. Walker also served as New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller’s special assistant on urban affairs and held visiting professorships at Princeton Theological Seminary and New York University. An expert on gospel music, Walker published several books on the role music has played in the black religious tradition, including Somebody’s Calling My Name: Black Sacred Music and Social Change (1979).