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Rev. Wyatt Tee Walker, Civil Rights Icon, dies at 88

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Wyatt Tee Walker (right) with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (AP file photo).

By Erica Wright

The Birmingham Times

Wyatt Tee Walker (right) with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (AP file photo).

The Rev. Wyatt Tee Walker, a top strategist for Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the Civil Rights Movement, died early on Tuesday at an assisted-living facility near his home in Chester, Va. He was 88.

Bishop Calvin Woods, National Vice President of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and President of the Birmingham-Metropolitan chapter, said Walker will be greatly missed.

“I was one of the ten ministers appointed by Dr. King and Rev. Walker to train other ministers,” Woods told The Birmingham Times. “Reverend Walker was very encouraging of my position. He gave good leadership and never tried to get in front of Dr. King. He was called the strategy man and was respected by everybody who worked for him.”

Walker leaves behind a legacy of great work and is remembered for touching the lives of many, said Woods.

“The world is better because of Reverend Walker,” said Woods. “He can never be forgotten because he did a dynamic work and his work is still living on. You can’t speak about Dr. King without Reverend Walker if you know the story of the movement because he did so much. He was a man of faith and a man of prayer and will truly be missed.”

King invited Walker to move to Atlanta to become the SCLC’s first full-time executive director. It was Walker who brought the organization to “national power” during his leadership in 1960 to 1964.

Walker’s background helped prepare him for Civil Rights work in Birmingham. He led two major civil rights organizations in Virginia: president of the Petersburg chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and state director of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), which he co-founded in 1958.

During this time, Walker became increasingly close to King and later served as his chief of staff. In 1957, Walker helped found the SCLC and in 1958 Dr. King appointed Walker for the board of SCLC.

His work with King in Birmingham helped dismantle segregation in the South and lead to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, heralding a worldwide movement toward racial justice. Walker served as chief strategist and tactician for “Project C”, the detailed plan for confrontation with local police and city officials that was the heart of the first phase of the Birmingham Campaign in 1963.  Walker also helped organize and participated in the 1963 March on Washington.

Walker was born in Massachusetts and raised primarily in New Jersey. He received his college education at Virginia Union University in Richmond, Va. After receiving his degree, in 1953 Walker was called as pastor at historic Gillfield Baptist Church, the second oldest Black church in Petersburg and one of the oldest in the nation.

In 1967, Walker was called as senior pastor of Canaan Baptist Church of Christ in Harlem, NY, where he commanded a major pulpit in the struggle for tolerance and social justice. During this time, Walker hosted numerous leaders from Africa including Nelson Mandela of South Africa, who were active in struggles against colonialism and apartheid.

Walker served as Urban Affairs Specialist to Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller during the 70s’ and completed his doctorate at Colgate Rochester Divinity School in 1975. Walker was very active in the anti-apartheid movement and in 1978 he founded the International Freedom Mobilization to draw attention to the abuses of apartheid in South Africa. He continued his anti-apartheid work through the height of the movement during the 1980s.

Walker retired in 2004 after 37 years as senior pastor with the title of pastor emeritus of Canaan Baptist Church. He spent his final years in Virginia and taught at the Samuel DeWitt Proctor School of Theology at his Alma mater Virginia Union University in Richmond.