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Remembering Wyatt Walker (August 16, 1929-January 23, 2018)

Carson and Walker
With Wyatt Walker on August 11, 2012
Photo by Clayborne Carson

When I last saw the Reverend Wyatt Walker in 2012, he was in an assisted-living facility near the home in Chester, Virginia, that he had shared with his wife, Theresa Ann. Accompanied by my King Institute colleague Tenisha Armstrong, I wanted to talk with Walker about our ongoing effort to edit and publish The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr. He was, of course, quite interested in the documents related to his close ties to King as executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). In 1960 King selected Walker as the administrator who ‘‘would bring into full grown maturity an organization that is presently a sleeping giant." During the next four years, Walker would play a crucial role in transforming King's social gospel ideals into effective nonviolent strategies -- most notably devising the Project C plan that guided the historic 1963 Birmingham Campaign. King would praise Walker as "one of the keenest minds of the nonviolent revolution."

Some of my friends in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) resented Walker for displacing Ella Baker, who had previously managed SCLC's headquarters and subsequently became a revered SNCC advisor. Walker did not conceal his determination to assert King's leadership over a protest movement that often resisted top-down control. He saw 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.’’ His heavy-handed leadership style occasionally fueled tensions within SCLC, which was comprised mainly of Baptist ministers used to getting their way.

Even his critics found it difficult, however, to question Walker's dedication and intellectual acuity. A Magna Cum Laude graduate of Virginia Union University and a stellar student at Virginia Union's School of Religion, Walker shared King's commitment to social gospel Christianity. While King rose to national prominence during the 1950s because of his leadership of the Montgomery Bus Boycott movement, Walker became a prominent civil rights leader in Virginia while serving as pastor of Gillfield Baptist Church in Petersburg, Virginia. His Petersburg Improvement Association was modeled after King's Montgomery Improvement Association. When Walker decided to accept King's offer to move to Atlanta, he brought with him Dorothy Cotton, one of his closest assistants from the Petersburg Improvement Association and later director of SCLC's Citizenship Education Program.

Walker was also a key tactician, authoring and evaluating protest strategies, including ‘‘Project C,’’ the blueprint for SCLC’s Birmingham Campaign during the spring of 1963. He was also a key organizer of that summer's March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and contributed to the successful effort to pass the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. Aware that his heavy-hand leadership style sometimes stirred resentment, even within SCLC, Walker saw 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."

In 1964 Walker resigned his SCLC post, giving way to Andrew Young, and joined a new publishing venture, the Negro Heritage Library, sib becoming its president. Walker's interest in African-American history was deep and long-standing. When novelist Robert Penn Warren interviewed him for the book Who Speaks for the Negro? (1965), Walker asserted that "more people are reached through the written word than the spoken word" and spoke of his goal of developing historical materials that would inform African Americans about "the whole gamut of experiences of experiences that he has been able . . . to develop within his own culture. This is really fascinating."

Walker's continued to pursue his historical interests throughout his distinguished career in the ministry and public service. When he became pastor of New York's Canaan Baptist Church in 1968, King preached at his installation service, praising Walker as ‘‘a tall man, tall in stature, tall in courage.’’ Walker later became New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller's special assistant on urban affairs. In 1975 he received his D.Min. from Colgate-Rochester Divinity School and was a visiting professor at Princeton Theological Seminary and New York University. He publish a number of books, including Somebody’s Calling My Name: Black Sacred Music and Social Change (1979), which explored the role of music in the black religious tradition.

My 2012 conversation with Walker was wide-ranging, reflecting his extraordinary career. The most memorable moment for me was his recollection of returning to Birmingham in 1967 to join King in the city's jail after both men lost their appeals of arrests during the 1963 campaign. His reunion with King was clearly the capstone of his involvement in the Southern freedom struggle. He reminded me that he had taken the famous photo of King peering out from his jail cell (an image that is sometimes mistakenly dated to the time when King wrote his famous "Letter from Birmingham Jail"). I was pleasantly surprised and honored when he gave me a framed print of the photo that King had taken of his cellmate. It was the first time I had seen a photograph that I knew King had taken. I will always treasure it and remember his dedication.