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2018-02-14 / Featured / Front Page

Walking with the King: The story of civil rights icon Wyatt Tee Walker

BY RICH GRISET STAFF WRITER


The Rev. Wyatt Tee Walker with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on the March 12, 1964, issue of Jet Magazine. Walker’s death was covered by national publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post and Time Magazine. 
COURTESY OF THE DR. ANDMRS. WYATT TEE WALKERCOLLECTION, BOATWRIGHTLIBRARY, UNIVERSITY OFRICHMOND The Rev. Wyatt Tee Walker with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on the March 12, 1964, issue of Jet Magazine. Walker’s death was covered by national publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post and Time Magazine. COURTESY OF THE DR. ANDMRS. WYATT TEE WALKERCOLLECTION, BOATWRIGHTLIBRARY, UNIVERSITY OFRICHMOND Even in the early days of his career, the Rev. Wyatt Tee Walker wasn’t afraid of causing a stir.

Picnicking with his congregation from Petersburg’s Gillfield Baptist Church in the 1950s, the young Walker’s conduct scandalized some of his parishioners: the pastor went waterskiing.

“The older people, they were very uncomfortable,” recalls Petersburg native Charles Lewis, a neighbor of Walker’s. “That was the biggest talk of the city.”

Surmounting others’ expectations would become a hallmark of Walker’s life.

Walker, an iconic civil rights leader and chief of staff to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., passed away last month in Chester at the age of 88. His death was announced by the Rev. Al Sharpton and covered by the national media; his obituary ran in The New York Times, The Washington Post and Time Magazine. When it comes to civil rights leaders who have called Chesterfield home, Walker is unmatched: It’s hard to overstate his contributions to the fight against racial inequality and intolerance.

During the Jim Crow era, Walker helped galvanize the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the organization at the forefront of the 1960s civil rights movement. He was the strategist of “Project C,” a plan of boycotts and demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama, that became the blueprint for similar demonstrations throughout the South. He helped organize the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom where King gave his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech. Later, he co-founded organizations to oppose apartheid in South Africa, and supervised the election that saw Nelson Mandela become the country’s first black head of state.


A photo taken during Walker’s arrest at the Petersburg Public Library in 1960. Walker was attempting to check out a biography of Robert E. Lee using the “whites only” entrance. A caption on the back reads that Rev. R.G. Williams and Petersburg chief of police Willard Traylor are also shown in the image. 
COURTESY OF THE DR. AND MRS. WYATT TEE WALKER COLLECTION, BOATWRIGHT LIBRARY, UNIVERSITY OF RICHMOND A photo taken during Walker’s arrest at the Petersburg Public Library in 1960. Walker was attempting to check out a biography of Robert E. Lee using the “whites only” entrance. A caption on the back reads that Rev. R.G. Williams and Petersburg chief of police Willard Traylor are also shown in the image. COURTESY OF THE DR. AND MRS. WYATT TEE WALKER COLLECTION, BOATWRIGHT LIBRARY, UNIVERSITY OF RICHMOND But it was here in metro Richmond that Walker began his civil rights career, and here he would return for the later years of his life. For more than a decade, Walker resided in Chester at the Crossings at Ironbridge, a senior living community.

As celebrations and remembrances take place this February in honor of Black History Month, we look back at Walker’s life and impact.

 

Stepping into the Petersburg Public Library through the “whites only” entrance with a group of protestors, Walker didn’t let his mission stop him from throwing in a cheeky dig: he attempted to check out Douglas Southall Freeman’s flattering biography of Robert E. Lee. The incident sparked other library protests across the country, and was the first of 17 times he would be arrested on his quest to better the lives of African-Americans.

Born in Massachusetts, but raised primarily in New Jersey, Walker was named pastor of Petersburg’s Gillfield Baptist Church in 1952 after attending Virginia Union University, where he obtained a bachelor’s degree in physics and chemistry and a master of divinity degree. Being named pastor of Petersburg’s second-oldest black congregation fresh out of divinity school was no small accomplishment.

“Petersburg was the center of most political and social life for black people in this region,” explains Florence Farley, former mayor of Petersburg and the first black female mayor in the state.

Back then, downtown Petersburg was bustling with restaurants and pool halls; Farley’s husband, Richard, operated Farley’s Restaurant on South Avenue.

“Wyatt would go there and eat his beef stew,” Farley recalls.

Although Walker was a minister, Farley remembers him as one of the guys, and says his congregation embraced him warmly.

“They were overjoyed to have him: a young man, extremely well-spoken, very fluent, very social,” remembers Farley, who also served on Petersburg’s City Council and School Board. “Just a strong black man. And they were very proud to have him as a minister. The whole church came to life under his leadership.”

Walker also oversaw Mt. Level Baptist Church in Dinwiddie, preaching for both congregations on Sundays. He presided over the Petersburg branch of the NAACP for five years and served for a year as the state director of the Congress of Racial Equality.

Bessie M. Moorer attended Gillfield during Walker’s tenure, and says she’ll never forget him.

“He was a very, very kind, well-equipped minister, and he loved his church,” says the 93-year-old, who now lives in Colonial Heights. “He was outspoken in the right manner, and he loved young people.” Moorer would march with Walker many times, including the March on Washington and the Selma to Montgomery marches.

“Oh, it was something else,” says Moorer of Selma. “I just celebrated my 93rd birthday last Tuesday, and I’ll never forget that experience as long as I live.”


Eventually, the national stage came calling.

Having first met King while both were students during an inter-seminary meeting, Walker later joined King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a civil rights organization at the forefront of the 1960s civil rights movement.

Walker built the neophyte group into a national organization, and created “Project C.” The plan – for which “C” meant “confrontation” – desegregated Birmingham and served as a blueprint for later Jim Crow-era protests in the South.

King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” a famous document that publicized his plan for nonviolent resistance to racism, was penned while King was incarcerated and handed off to Walker via scraps of paper. Walker translated these writings into a manifesto for publication, and took an iconic photo of King in his cell by sneaking in a camera taped to his leg.

“He was quite a man. He put Virginia on the map,” says retired state Sen. Henry Marsh, who first met Walker during the March on Washington. “He had a deep, rich baritone voice that roared at you. He sounded like an opera singer talking. He had a sense for history, and Martin King needed his leadership. He was his chief of staff during the years that really mattered.”

Following the 1960s civil rights movement, Walker became senior pastor at Harlem’s Canaan Baptist Church of Christ, a position he would hold for 37 years. During his time there, Walker fought for affordable housing and better schools.

“His civic and community work included becoming the largest developer of affordable housing in New York City,” says Patrice Glenn Anderson, a longtime family friend who lives in New York City. Through his church, Walker oversaw the development of $100 million in affordable housing, and was chairman of the Freedom National Bank, helping fulfill Harlem’s economic needs for a quarter century.

Walker’s efforts to help Harlem weren’t confined to his desk; he was frequently out in the community, fighting drug trafficking and addiction. He sometimes used a bullhorn to get his message across, preaching sermons at drug dealers, telling them they were detracting from their own neighborhood.

“He energized the black clergy,” Marsh says. “He’ll be remembered for generations.”  


Following a series of strokes, Walker retired from Canaan in 2004 and moved back to Virginia with his wife, Theresa Ann, who still lives in Chester.

Anderson says he returned to the area because he “always felt a connection with that part [of the country], because that was literally his first job, the area where he met Martin at a conference when they were both young ministers.”

George Lyons, the current pastor of Gillfield, first met Walker during the spring of 1990, when Lyons was an undergraduate student at the University of California, Los Angeles. After hearing a college professor mention Walker in a lecture, Lyons read in a newspaper that Walker would be speaking in town. Lyons attended the talk, introduced himself, and the two became friends.

Lyons would later visit him roughly once a week during Walker’s retirement years, discussing a wide range of topics, including Walker’s past.

It was in Petersburg where Walker learned to engage a church community in civil action and understanding, Lyons says.

“When he participated in the move to desegregate the Petersburg library, he was both engaging his faith, which teaches the divinity in all humanity, and what our governing documents state: All men are created equal,” Lyons says. “He had a wonderful sense of humor, and he was working on – and I believe he completed, in the last several months – a book of humor and sayings.”

Kendra Moore, medical technician at Walker’s senior living community off Iron Bridge Road, knew him for more than a decade.

“He’s a really sweet man,” Moore says. “He loved everybody. He was always willing to talk about the things he did.”

Moore recalls that basketball always seemed to be on Walker’s television, and that family members and a choir from New York came to visit him during the holidays. He often entertained students from Virginia State University to talk about his life. Walker is survived by his wife, a daughter, three sons, a sister and two granddaughters. Two of his children live in Richmond.

“I was there when it happened,” says Moore of his passing, adding that he thanked everybody in the room. “I loved him. I didn’t want him to go.” ¦

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