In “Parting the Waters,” Taylor Branch’s monumental study of the Civil Rights Movement, there is a long column of citations of the Rev. Dr. Wyatt Tee Walker. From page 245 to page 876, from Albany, Ga. to the March on Washington, you witness how indispensable and loyal the Rev. Walker was to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement.
After a long illness and an even longer fight for freedom and justice, the Rev. Walker joined the ancestors Tuesday, Jan. 23, at his home in Chester, Va. He was 88.
Best remembered as Dr. King’s chief of staff, the Rev. Walker was the go-to guy, one responsible for the daily activities of the movement and Dr. King’s campaigns. He carried out these duties with the same precision and detail he brought to his sermons, always mindful of bringing Scripture to the service of struggle.
That service of struggle was most often sermonized at Canaan Baptist Church of Christ in Harlem, where he was the senior pastor for more than 40 years.
Born Aug. 16, 1929 in Brockton, Mass. to John Wise and Maude Pin Walker, Walker attended elementary and high school in Merchantville, N.J. In 1950, he graduated from Virginia Union University with a Bachelor of Science degree in chemistry and physics. This year was the same year he married Theresa Ann Walker and they had four children. He received his Master of Divinity from Virginia Union’s Graduate School of Religion in 1953, the same year he became pastor of Gillfield Baptist Church in Petersburg, Va.
Along with pastoring the church, he served as president of the NAACP in the city and director of the state’s Congress of Racial Equality branch. As a leader of Petersburg Civil Rights Movement, he patterned much of the strategy and tactics on those used successfully in Montgomery. In 1958, he joined the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and his rapid rise in the organization within a couple of years convinced Dr. King that he would be a significant force as executive director of the group.
The Rev. Walker’s next appointment brought him into Dr. King’s inner circle as chief of staff, a post he would hold until 1964.
He played an important role in the marches and demonstrations in Albany, Ga. and later in Birmingham, where he was arrested for participating in a Freedom Ride. But it was two years later as a key organizer in the March on Washington that he reached his pinnacle as a freedom fighter and civil rights activist.
As the urban centers of the nation became more politically intense, the Rev. Walker was back in Harlem, where he took the helm at Canaan Baptist Church of Christ. One of the most immediate results of his leadership was the dramatic increase in the congregation that leaped from 800 to 3,000. This increase in membership greatly enhanced his prominence in the community and might have been a factor in his being tapped as an urban affairs specialist to Gov. Nelson Rockefeller.
Besides his numerous duties, he found time to complete doctorate of ministry degree in 1975 from Colgate-Rochester Divinity School. There was also time to nurture his long passion for music and publish his first book, “Somebody’s Calling My Name: Black Sacred Music and Social Change.” In the book, the Rev. Walker traces the history of religious tradition from its ancestral roots to its impact on Black religious experiences in modern times.
“During the 1980s Walker continued his community activism,” according to the website The Black Past Remembered. “He became a member of the National Committee on the American Committee on Africa. In 1988, he co-founded the Religious Action Network of Africa Action to challenge the repressive apartheid system in South Africa, and he served as chair of the Central Harlem Local Development Corporation, which built low income housing.”
In an email the Rev. Al Sharpton recalled the Rev. Walker’s influence and inspiration. “The passing of Dr. Wyatt Tee Walker marks the transition of one of one of the greatest social justice and theological minds of our time,” Sharpton said. “Rev. Walker was the first chairman of the National Action Network and a man who mentored me as a civil rights and social justice leader, and while I am saddened by his passing, I am committed to carrying on his legacy. It is both a personal and global loss to me. May he rest in peace.”
The Rev. Walker, in 1993, was named one of America’s greatest preachers by Ebony magazine. A year later, he retired from Canaan. Over the succeeding years came a flood of honors, including induction into the Civil Rights Walk of Fame in Atlanta, Ga. in 2008, and in 2009 during the inauguration events in Washington, D.C. for President Obama, the Rev. Walker received the Keepers of the Flame award at the African-American Church Inaugural Ball.
“We are saddened by the passing of Rev. Dr. Wyatt Tee Walker,” said Mayor de Blasio. “He was a fighter for freedom who dedicated his life to bending the arc of the moral universe toward justice. Harlem won’t soon forget his work winning more affordable housing for his community.”