NEW YORK — The Rev. Wyatt Tee Walker, who was chief of staff to the Rev. 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 Tuesday at his home in Chester, Va. The native of Brockton was 88.
His death was announced by the Rev. Al Sharpton. Rev. Walker was the organization’s first board chairman of the National Action Network, Sharpton’s organization.
Rev. 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 Governor 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.
Rev. 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 King while both were students.
The two had been presidents of their classes — King at Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania — and they had their first encounter during an inter-seminary meeting.
Rev. Walker joined the fledgling Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1961 and served until 1964 as its executive director and, unofficially, as King’s right-hand man. At the SCLC, 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,” Rev. 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.”
Rev. Walker helped circulate “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” one of the most important documents of the civil rights movement, in which 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 King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
Scholars and activists alike say his management skills were crucial in turning the SCLC 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 Rev. Walker as “the real leader of the Negro movement.”
The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson said Rev. 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,” 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 Brockton 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.
But the pulpit produced little income; the family was impoverished during the Depression, Rev. Walker told a biographer for a dissertation. Five of his siblings died of diseases before he was old enough to remember them, he said.
After graduating from high school, 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.
He received his master of divinity degree from Union and also held a doctorate from Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School in Rochester.
An authority on gospel music and a composer of religious music as well, Rev. Walker published several books and articles that dealt with the relationship among music, black religious tradition, and social change. He also was a noted photographer.
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 and state director of the Congress of Racial Equality.
Rev. Walker worked for the SCLC 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.
Rev. Walker married Theresa Edwards on Dec. 24, 1950. They had three sons, Wyatt Jr., Robert and Earl, and a daughter, Ann. There was no immediate information on his survivors.
For Rev. 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 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.”