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From Wyatt Tee Walker

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Author: Walker, Wyatt Tee (Gillfield Baptist Church; Pilgrimage of Prayer for Public Schools)

Date: January 16, 1959

Location: Petersburg, Va.

Genre: Letter

Topic: Student movements


Walker, the pastor of Gillfield Baptist Church in Petersburg, reports on a 1 January Prayer Pilgrimage to protest the efforts of Virginia officials to block public school integration.1 He thanks King for providing prerecorded remarks that were played at the culmination of the demonstration outside the capitol in Richmond. King replied on 28 January, congratulating Walker on the success of the Pilgrimage: "Virginia and the nation will remain in debt to you for many years to come." 2

Dr. Martin L. King, Jr.
Dexter Avenue Baptist Church
454 Dexter Avenue
Montgomery, Alabama

Dear Mike,

Upon my return to Petersburg immediately following the Pilgrimage my first impulse was to call you and tell you the good news of how tremendously successful our protest was. After three calls or so, it dawned on me that you could not possibly have returned from Mobile.3 Carey and I both tried the next day, but to no avail; thus we assumed that you were spending the holidays with your relatives in Atlanta.4

Friday and Saturday following the Pilgrimage we worked all day getting out our final press release (we sent one to your Montgomery paper) and balancing the accounts. Sunday, of course, I was tied down in my pulpit work and left at 3:30 that afternoon for New York City. There I attended the Annual Meeting of the NAACP and on Tuesday, Carey and I were both honored at a luncheon of the National Action Committee of CORE, at which time we gave a first-hand report of the Pilgrimage.5

For the past week since my return I have resumed my regular duties as the Minister of Gillfield Church. I say all this to say this is why I haven't written sooner.

I hesitated to write because I wanted to do it in a moment when I was not being pushed for time, because I felt such a letter should be written in a moment of leisure that I might adequately express my sincere appreciation for your endorsement and encouragement and, above all, your prayers. The tape recording arrived 9 o'clock on the morning of the Pilgrimage. There were so many last minute details to be looked after that I heard it for the first time when everyone else did.

I attended a National Emancipation Day program at 11 o'clock hoping that my appearance there would, in some little way, advertise our program at the Mosque to be held some time later in the day.

The newspaper accounts said that there was a steady drizzle, but believe you me, it was a steady downpour! There were many moments on January 1 when I wished that I had never heard of a Pilgrimage of Prayer for Public Schools. You can imagine my shock and surprise at 2:10 when I took a peek into the main auditorium of the Mosque and saw more than 1500 people. With the promise of bad weather we had not expected more than 500. I was really "shook".

Enclosed is a program.6 Everything was orderly and of a very reverent tone. You could not have spoken more directly to the situation if you had been here yourself. This whole experience has persuaded me to renewed faith "that God knows what He is about". I did not think, after my first shock, that there could ever be anything comparable to it, yet, when we left the Mosque to march seventeen blocks across the city of Richmond in the rain, I felt within my own self that if one hundred persons or ministers would walk that far in that kind of weather it would be a significant demonstration. Two blocks from the Mosque it happened all over again. When I looked back across a small park that adjoins the Mosque I saw a number behind me that "no man could number".7 We began singing, at this point, the great hymns of the church and Negro spirituals. It was in these moments that I felt keenest the solidarity of our struggle in the South. For twelve or thirteen blocks, men, women, and children; the halt and the lame; the young and the aged; orderly, and with dignity, making a non-violent protest against the evil of closed schools in our Commonwealth. It was really a sight to behold!

I had thought many times of being a part of something like this, and I imagined that I would have been very proud, but in the moments immediately following our service on the south portico of the Capitol steps, and in the intervening days since, it has had a very humbling effect upon me. I really lost myself in this protest and I have seen the words of Jesus come true in my own life—"He that loses his life for My sake shall surely find it".8 I feel strengthened now more than I have ever felt before and I shall always cherish the personal inspiration you have afforded me in our very warm friendship. I earnestly solicit your prayers and counsel that I may keep my feet on the ground and allow the Good Lord to use me in some small way that our people may be truly freed in this generation from the shackles of prejudice and discrimination.

Our constant prayers are ever with you in your work and I look forward to seeing you at the War Resisters League Dinner in New York City on February 2.9 My warm regards to Coretta and the children.

Sincerely yours,
[signed] W. Tee
Wyatt Tee Walker, Coordinator
Pilgrimage of Prayer for Public Schools


P.S. It is too early to tell just what the effects of the Pilgrimage will be, but certainly it was significant that as many pilgrims as did come were there to be counted for so vital an issue on such a bad day.

1. For King's endorsement of the Prayer Pilgrimage, see To Brother in Christ, 3 December 1958, in Papers4:542-543.

2. King later offered Walker the position of executive director of SCLC (see King to Walker, 5 March 1960, pp. 384-385 in this volume).

3. On New Year's Day King attended an Emancipation Day program in Mobile, Alabama.

4. Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) field secretary Gordon Carey helped Walker coordinate the Pilgrimage. In a 15 January 1959 letter, Carey also thanked King for his contribution to the march and praised Walker's efforts in Petersburg.

5. Hortense Sawyer, "Minutes National Action Committee," 6 January 1959.

6. Pilgrimage of Prayer for Public Schools, Program, "State-Wide Emancipation Day service," 1 January 1959.

7. Cf. Revelations 7:9.

8. Cf. Matthew 16:25.

9. King delivered the keynote address at the WRL's thirty-sixth annual dinner on 2 February 1959 (see pp. 120-125 in this volume).

Source: MLKP-MBU, Martin Luther King, Jr., Papers, 1954-1968, Boston University, Boston, Mass.

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