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Walker, Wyatt T.(1929–) - Minister, civil rights activist, Becomes Minister and Civil Rights Leader, Heads Civil Rights Organization, Chronology

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As a Baptist minister with multiple gifts, Wyatt Tee Walker has championed civil and human rights for oppressed peoples around the world. Walker has traveled to over ninety countries and preached on every continent with the exception of Australia. He has held numerous humanitarian leadership positions in the United States and abroad. As a southern minister and as the executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Walker was a leader in the fight against segregation and racial discrimination in the South.

Walker was born on August 16, 1929 in Brockton, Massachusetts, but grew up in New Jersey. As a young man, he lived some years in the South where he earned his B.S. (magna cum laude) in 1950 and his M.Div (summa cum laude) in 1953 from Virginia Union University. Walker earned his D.Min. in 1975 from Colgate-Rochester Divinity School. He married Theresa Ann Edwards in 1951 and together they had four children.

During Walker’s growing up years, racial discrimination and segregation against African Americans were prevalent. But Walker rejected the premise of Jim Crow and was a well-seasoned radical by the time he reached adulthood. Walker’s father left the South because of Jim Crow only to find the same institution in the North. When he was nine years, young Walker and his siblings challenged the system by sitting in a movie theater, knowing very well that it was a whites-only establishment. His public involvement in resistance to segregation and discrimination began long before 1957 when he joined the Southern Christian Leadership Conference as a director of the board.

Becomes Minister and Civil Rights Leader

Walker was one of the founding directors of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) that was created in 1957 at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, by a group of black men, most of whom were southern ministers. While the National Association of Colored People (NAACP) had worked for integration, namely in education with a favorable federal ruling in the Brown v. Board of Education in Topeka, Kansas case in 1955, the SCLC founders felt that the NAACP approach only addressed the legalistic aspect of the problems and was only a first step toward equal treatment for blacks. By contrast, the SCLC intended to use the power of the black church and direct, nonviolent action to bring about integration and civil rights for African Americans.

Directly after receiving his master’s degree in divinity, Walker became the pastor of Gillfield Baptist Church in Petersburg, Virginia, and served that congregation for the next eight years. As a pastor and a director of the SCLC board, he also served as state director of the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE), of which he was a founding member in 1958, and was branch president of the NAACP in Petersburg, Virginia for five years. Walker also founded and headed the Petersburg Improvement Association (PIA), a protest organization, while serving as pastor of Gillfield. Several SCLC affiliates were set up in Virginia under his leadership, and Walker coordinated many mass demonstrations to combat segregation. Two outstanding efforts made by Walker were the 1958 sit-ins in protest of segregation at the Petersburg Public library and the 1958 march on Richmond to protest the closing of public schools to avoid segregation set for January 1959. By virtue of the favorable ruling in federal court, the PIA successfully sued. In addition, the Prayer Pilgrimage in the Virginia State Capitol was successful. Walker’s PIA became the model for direct action by the SCLC, whereby movement centers were set up across the state.

From the pulpit Walker, like other black southern ministers, preached about the injustice in segregation and discrimination, persuaded his congregation to contribute financially, and incited the congregation into action for change. By 1958, Gillfield Baptist Church represented the core of massive organizing efforts, the center of the SCLC networks, and the organizing headquarters for demonstrations in Virginia. According to Walker, the successes of the Virginia movement could be attributed to strong church leadership dependent on spiritual direction and a commitment to nonviolence that functioned under the leadership of Martin Luther King and the SCLC. Besides acknowledging his own outstanding administrative, organizing, and leadership abilities, according to Aldon Morris, Walker also claimed his abrasiveness as a gift from above that enabled him to get done the jobs he set out to do, despite unfavorable responses from colleagues, subordinates, and others. In 1958, Walker coordinated SCLC workshops held in Norfolk, Virginia, to teach techniques in resisting violence to black demonstrators. At the same time, the SCLC held a mass meeting which over 11,000 people attended and which raised $2,500. Between 1960 and 1963, he was the executive director of SCLC, and he developed Project C, the confrontation that dismantled the federal government’s support of segregation in Birmingham, Alabama, the largest and most segregated city in the South.

Heads Civil Rights Organization

In 1960 Walker accepted the first full-time executive director position of the SCLC, headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia, foregoing his pastorate at Gillfield Baptist Church. By virtue of his performance in Petersburg, Walker gained respect among SCLC leaders as well as the respect of King. Walker had the privilege of administrative authority. In step with SCLC philosophy, Walker constantly reminded black church members and clergy of their unique social positions and urged their participation in the movement for civil rights for blacks.

Chronology

1929

Born in Brockton, Massachusetts on August 16

1950

Earns B.S. at Virginia Union University and graduates magna cum laude

1951

Marries Theresa Ann Edwards

1953

Earns M.Div. at Virginia Union University and graduates summa cum laude; becomes pastor of the Gillfield Baptist Church in Petersburg, Virginia

1957

Founds Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) as one of several directors

1958

Founds Congress of Racial Equality as one of several directors; founds the Peters Improvement Association

1960

Becomes the first full-time executive director of SCLC, headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia

1963

Develops strategic plan, Project C, that shut down economy in Birmingham, Alabama

1967

Becomes senior pastor of Canaan Baptist Church of Christ in Harlem, New York

1970

Launches the Consortium for Central Harlem Development while serving as urban affairs specialist to Governor Nelson Rockefeller

1975

Joins the board of directors of Freedom National Bank in New York and serves for ten years

1979

Begins publishing books on the African American religious experience

2001

Becomes president of the Religious Action Network (RAN)

2004

Retires from the pastorate of Canaan Baptist Church in Christ in Harlem

One of Walker’s first tasks as executive director was to add structure to the organization. For example, he implemented monthly budget control sheets to track spending. He introduced the organization to projected income on a fiscal basis. He hired assistants who, in turn, hired secretarial assistants to stabilize the clerical area of the organization. He developed and instituted personnel policies and procedures and a systematic policy for press releases. He also kept meticulous financial records to comply with the stringent and complicated tax laws for the 501-C4 status the SCLC had acquired as a protest organization. Next, Walker took control of King’s travel and speaking schedule and often accompanied him on the road. With the help of a booking agency, Walker managed to arrange King’s engagements so as to maximize his earnings in the least amount of time. With new arrangements and donations, the SCLC’s income more than doubled within Walker’s first year as the executive director. Besides a significant increase in income, the SCLC also increased the number of protest marches and demonstrations throughout the South. Walker participated in several protest marches in the South, but he played a significant role in helping to dismantle the economic well-being of the business community of Birmingham, Alabama.

Gains Fame as Preacher and Humanitarian

Walker is a well-known international civil rights activist. In fact, Nelson Mandela’s first stop in the United States as president of South Africa was to attend a service at Walker’s church. As an antiapartheid activist and advocate for Palestinians, Walker was the first African American to meet with Yasir Arafat after the demilitarization of the Gaza Strip and Jericho. Walker was chairman of the board of the American Committee on Africa (ACOA), which was subsequently named Africa Action. In 2001, he became president of the Religious Action Network (RAN), a project of ACOA. The project is a network of two hundred congregations working for peace and freedom in Africa. The focus of the organization is to challenge U.S. and international policies towards Africa that affect justice issues economically, politically and socially. This international effort on Walker’s part constitutes only one of his many humanitarian efforts.

Walker is considered the foremost authority on the music of the African American religious experience, in addition to its influence on the freedom movement. He has written many books about the music of the African American church. Walker authored several books between 1965 and 2005, dealing with music, grace, faith, and love. One particularly outstanding effort in 1985 was Walker’s appearance on a public broadcasting network, whereby he revealed his music tree in a two-part series. Walker’s construct of the music tree may be found in videotape format.

Walker has received various awards for his outstanding efforts toward civil and human rights. In addition he has received honorary doctorate degrees from his alma mater and Princeton University. He was named in a 1993 Ebony magazine poll as one of the fifteen greatest African preachers in the United States. At the request of Coretta Scott King, Walker made the arrangements for Martin Luther King’s funeral services, which were held at Ebenezer Baptist Church and Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia, on April 10, 1968, a daunting responsibility. Walker retired from the pastorate of Canaan Baptist Church in Christ in Harlem in 2004.

Walking on Water (2002) - Overview, Synopsis, Critique [next] [back] Walker, Sir John (Ernest)

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