Walker, Wyatt T.

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Wyatt T. Walker

Minister, civil rights activist

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.


Born in Brockton, Massachusetts on August 16
Earns B.S. at Virginia Union University and graduates magna cum laude
Marries Theresa Ann Edwards
Earns M.Div. at Virginia Union University and graduates summa cum laude; becomes pastor of the Gillfield Baptist Church in Petersburg, Virginia
Founds Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) as one of several directors
Founds Congress of Racial Equality as one of several directors; founds the Peters Improvement Association
Becomes the first full-time executive director of SCLC, headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia
Develops strategic plan, Project C, that shut down economy in Birmingham, Alabama
Becomes senior pastor of Canaan Baptist Church of Christ in Harlem, New York
Launches the Consortium for Central Harlem Development while serving as urban affairs specialist to Governor Nelson Rockefeller
Joins the board of directors of Freedom National Bank in New York and serves for ten years
Begins publishing books on the African American religious experience
Becomes president of the Religious Action Network (RAN)
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.

Directs Project C in Birmingham

The 1960 sit-ins staged by southern college students brought international attention to the cause of blacks in the South and can be viewed as the basic paradigm for the nonviolent protests that followed. The SCLC adopted the students' principle along with many other forms of protest, but with an added dimension: the black church. The organization relied heavily on the participation of ministers and their congregations to carry out mass demonstrations throughout the South. In 1960 and 1961, Walker was active in the Freedom Rides in the South. More important, he was the mastermind of the mass demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963 that ultimately disrupted the economic construct there and crushed the federally supported segregation and discrimination against blacks. The goals of the SCLC in Birmingham were to confront segregation on a mass, nonviolent, and economic scale during the Easter season in 1963 and to attract big headline stories across the country that dramatized the mass jailing of blacks for seeking their civil rights. Walker documented three phases of strategy for the confrontation in eight pages and named it Project C (for confrontation). Phase one called for a few blacks to stage sit-ins at the lunch counters of three department stores; phase two called for protest marches by blacks on a limited scale through downtown; and phase three called for massive protests and demonstrations by thousands of school children. Well in advance of the day of confrontation, Walker made several trips to Birmingham to survey the downtown, which was the target of Project C. He documented logistics in detail, including the names of the department stores and their locations, the number of seats in the eating areas, and approximately how long it would take a young, middle-aged, or older person to walk from one point to another. While the first two phases of Project C did not generate the media attention needed to command public outcry for police brutality and the jailing of blacks, phase three did. Over several days, thousands of school-aged children filled the Birmingham jails beyond capacity. This scenario generated the media attention Walker anticipated. Stories were published all over the country of police dogs and fire hoses used to attack and injure children and demonstrators. Such scenes and reports created more than enough national demonstration of police brutality and inhumanity to give the SCLC the needed leverage to engage in serious negotiations with the white power structures. Walker continued to assist the SCLC in the South through financial contributions. In June 1963, he sponsored a jazz concert that was held in the backyard of baseball legend Jackie Robinson. Jazz vocalists and musicians came from all over. The concert yielded over $14,000, which Walker turned over to the SCLC to continue its work.

Walker resigned his post as executive director of the SCLC in July 1964 to become vice president at Educational Heritage, Inc., a publishing firm in Yonkers, New York. The next year, he became an assistant pastor at the community-oriented Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. In 1967, he was made senior pastor of the Canaan Baptist Church of Christ in Harlem. Walker had a loud voice in the South on behalf of African Americans, and his voice carried in the North as well. He served as urban affairs specialist to governor Nelson Rockefeller for ten years. During that period, Walker quieted racial tensions relative to desegregation of schools and labor union disputes. In addition, he is credited with the proposal and building of Harlem's state office building. It was a controversial project, but Walker succeeded as advisory board chairperson in advising the governor on which agencies should be housed in the new state building. Another project launched by Walker during his tenure in the Rockefeller administration was the Consortium for Central Harlem Development. Walker is responsible for $100 million in housing construction, whereby senior citizens and low to moderate-income families found affordable places to live. In 1975, Walker joined the Board of Directors of Freedom National Bank. He served three terms as chairman of the board during his decade of service. Freedom National was one of the nation's largest and most profitable minority-owned banks.

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.



Branham, Charles R. Profiles of Great African Americans. Lincolnwood, Ill.: Publications International, Ltd., 1998.

Franklin, John Hope, and Alfred A. Moss Jr. From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans. 7th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc, 1994.

Hampton, Henry, and Steve Fayer. Voices of Freedom: An Oral History of the Civil Rights Movement from the 1960s to the 1980s. New York: Bantam Books, 1991.

Morris, Aldon D. The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement: Black Communities Organizing for Change. New York: The Free Press, 1984.

Patterson, Lillie. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Freedom Movement. New York: Facts on File, Inc., 1993.

Powledge, Fred. Free at Last? The Civil Rights Movement and the People Who Made It. New York: Harper Perennial, 1992.

Weisbrot, Robert. Freedom Bound: A History of America's Civil Rights Movement. New York: Norton, 1990.

Woodward, C. Vann. Strange Career of Jim Crow. New York: Oxford Press, 1974.


Moorer, Talise D. "Faith Notes: News from the pulpit & pew: Rev. Dr. Wyatt Tee Walker to be honored during weekend celebration." Amsterdam News, 14 October 2004.


"Africa Action Is Born." 21 March 2001. http://www.africa.upenn.edu/Urgent_Action/apic-032101.html (Accessed 15 February 2006).

Brown, Tony. Tony Brown's Journal No. 1: Roots of Music. Tony Brown Productions, [VHS1804] 1985. http://northonline.sccd.ctc.edu/pwebpaz/Media/MediaT.html (Accessed 15 February 2006).

                                   Shelhea C. Owens