Wyatt Tee Walker, Dr. King’s Strategist and a Harlem Leader, Dies at 88

The Rev. Wyatt Tee Walker, center, in 1961 with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and another King aide, the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, in Montgomery, Ala.

The Rev. Wyatt Tee Walker, who was chief of staff to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and a key strategist behind civil rights protests that turned the tide against racial injustice in the Jim Crow South of the 1960s, died early on Tuesday at an assisted-living facility near his home in Chester, Va. He was 88.

His death was announced by the Rev. Al Sharpton. Dr. Walker was the organization’s first board chairman of the National Action Network, Mr. Sharpton’s organization.

Dr. Walker preached against intolerance and racial inequality for six decades from pulpits across the South, in New York City and in five of the world’s seven continents. He helped supervise South Africa’s first fully representative elections in 1994, when Nelson Mandela’s rise to power ushered in the end of the apartheid regime.

But much of his impact was felt closer to home. For 37 years he was a towering community figure as the pastor at Canaan Baptist Church of Christ in Harlem, and from 1965 to 1975 he was a special assistant on urban affairs to Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller of New York. In both posts he was a strong advocate of affordable housing and better schools in the low-income neighborhoods of Upper Manhattan.

Dr. Walker’s work as a civil rights advocate began in 1953, soon after he finished his graduate studies at the historically black Virginia Union University in Richmond. He had met Dr. King while both were students.

The two had been presidents of their classes — Dr. King at Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania — and they had their first encounter during an inter-seminary meeting.

Dr. Walker joined the fledgling Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1961 and served until 1964 as its executive director and, unofficially, as Dr. King’s right-hand man. At the S.C.L.C., he devised a structured fund-raising strategy and organized numerous protests, including a series of anti-segregation boycotts and demonstrations in Birmingham, Ala., that came to be known as Project C.

The C stood for “confrontation,” and the project is regarded as the blueprint for the civil rights movement’s success in the South.

“The federal government was against us, the local communities were against us, the judges were against us, but we managed to do it, and I guess we found the strength to do it because it was a moral fight,” Dr. Walker said in an interview for this obituary in 2006.

“I was fully committed to nonviolence, and I believe with all my heart that for the civil rights movement to prove itself, its nonviolent actions had to work in Birmingham,” he continued. “If it wasn’t for Birmingham, there wouldn’t have been a Selma march, there wouldn’t have been a 1965 civil rights bill. Birmingham was the birthplace and affirmation of the nonviolent movement in America.”

Dr. Walker helped circulate “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” one of the most important documents of the civil rights movement, in which Dr. King argued for civil disobedience as a legitimate response to racial segregation. He also helped organize the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which culminated with Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

Scholars and activists alike say his management skills were crucial in turning the S.C.L.C. from a largely volunteer organization into a national power in the civil rights movement, with a million-dollar budget and 100 full-time workers.

A March 1964 report by the Alabama Legislative Commission to Preserve the Peace, which investigated civil rights-era militants, subversives and communists, described Dr. Walker as “the real leader of the Negro movement.”

The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson said Dr. Walker’s “brilliance as a strategist was his greatest contribution to the civil rights movement.”

“He comes from a time when civil rights leaders were martyrs, and not marketers,” Mr. Jackson added. “And he knew how to harness the energies of people who were excited about social change, and how to use the church as the center of his advocacy for the poor, the marginalized and the oppressed.”

Wyatt Tee Walker, a grandson of a former slave, was born on Aug. 16, 1929, in the shoemaking town of Brockton, Mass., the 10th of 11 children of the Rev. John Wise Walker and the former Maude Pinn. His father had been a member of the first graduating class of Virginia Union University in 1899 and read both Greek and Hebrew. His mother was also a Union graduate, and books filled the family home.

When Wyatt was a child the family moved to southern New Jersey, where his father had obtained a post preaching at a small black church in Merchantville. The heavyweight champion Jersey Joe Walcott, who had grown up there, was a family friend.

But the pulpit produced little income; the family was impoverished during the Depression, Mr. Walker told a biographer for a dissertation; he used cardboard to cover holes in the soles of his shoes. Five siblings died of childhood diseases before he was old enough to remember them, he said.

After graduating from high school in Merchantville in 1946, he went south to Virginia Union, carrying $100 that his parents had given him as tuition money to cover the first two semesters. He went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in both physics and chemistry in 1950, graduating with high honors.

He received his master of divinity degree from Union three years later. He also held a doctorate from Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School in Rochester. (The Crozer seminary in Pennsylvania had merged with Colgate Rochester in 1970.)

An authority on gospel music and a composer of religious music as well, Dr. Walker published several books and articles that dealt with the relationship among music, black religious tradition and social change. His photography was also the subject of exhibits.

Ordained in 1952, he preached for seven years at the Gillfield Baptist Church in Petersburg, Va. He staged numerous acts of civil disobedience during this time, resulting in 17 arrests. The first one came after he led a group of black men and women through the “whites only” door of the local library.

In Petersburg, he served as president of the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, state director of the Congress of Racial Equality and founder of the Petersburg Improvement Association, modeled on the Montgomery Improvement Association, which guided the bus boycott in Montgomery, Ala.

Dr. Walker worked for the S.C.L.C. in Atlanta for four years before moving to Harlem, in 1965, when he was named pulpit minister at the Abyssinian Baptist Church.

Two years later, he became pastor and chief executive of the Canaan Baptist Church of Christ, a post he held until a series of strokes forced him to retire in 2004. He then moved to Virginia to be closer to relatives.

Dr. Walker married Theresa Edwards on Dec. 24, 1950. She survives him, as do a daughter, Patrice Walker Powell; three sons, Robert, Earl and Wyatt Jr.; a sister, Mary Holley; and two granddaughters.

During his long tenure at Canaan Baptist, in the heart of Harlem at 116th Street between Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard and Lenox Avenue, Dr. Walker oversaw extensive development of church-sponsored affordable housing, housing for the elderly and what the church calls the oldest senior services center in Harlem.

In 1999, he was instrumental in establishing Harlem’s first charter school, the Sisulu-Walker Charter School (named for Dr. Walker and the South African anti-apartheid leader Walter Sisulu). He was a strong advocate of providing parents with taxpayer-financed vouchers for private schools, a position that put him at odds with champions of public schools in Harlem.

In addition to the National Action Network, Dr. Walker had been chairman of the Freedom National Bank, which sought to fill Harlem’s economic needs in the absence of major banks for a quarter-century, until it collapsed in 1990 under the weight of risky loans, and the Consortium for Central Harlem Development, which the church says was responsible for $100 million in housing.

For Dr. Walker, the civil rights movement had not ended with legislative victories in the 1960s. In 1989, speaking from the pulpit of Riverside Church in Manhattan to celebrate Dr. King’s 60th birthday, he said that the establishment of a national holiday to honor King had “seduced us into becoming too comfortable.”

He added, “It is insufficient for us to come together on his birthday, sometimes in an artificial way, white and black together, and sing ‘We Shall Overcome’ and hold hands and get a warm feeling and then go back to business as usual in white racist America.”

Dr. Walker was long on the front lines in the fight against drug trafficking and addiction in Harlem, recruiting other churches and community groups to help in that effort.

“We wanted our children to have a choice that was better than drugs,” he told The Times in 2015, adding, “You couldn’t buy aspirin” in the neighborhoods, “but you could buy any kind of drug.” The police, he said, were “overwhelmed.”

“We just felt they weren’t doing anything about it.”

At one point the Harlem drug kingpin Frank Lucas “put a hit out on me,” he said, “because I was effectively thwarting the drug traffic.” But he said he had shrugged off the threats.

“They were always warning me that it was dangerous, but that didn’t stop me,” he said. “I had been involved in the struggle in the Deep South, so I was accustomed to dangerous situations. It was tough to frighten me, because I was so convinced that God would take care of me.”

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