When Rev. Wyatt Tee Walker died last month, I paused to acknowledge the man and his lifetime of fighting against discrimination. The 88-year-old pastor and organizer was one of the lions of social justice. But, it’s likely that outside of certain circles of religion, academia and activism, his name does not bring widespread public recognition. And that’s especially poignant in this month when we celebrate black history, because Rev. Wyatt Tee Walker is black history.
It was Wyatt Tee Walker who organized and led the fledgling Southern Christian Leadership Conference that was the organization the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. led for most of his life. It was Wyatt Tee Walker who recognized the vital importance of Rev. King’s words written on scraps of paper while he was jailed in Birmingham. Walker helped gather up the pieces and then organized and circulated them in what became known as King’s famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” And later, it was Wyatt Tee Walker who came up with the next phase of the Birmingham demonstrations, Project C for confrontation, which involved hundreds of school-age protesters. Project C eventually led to one of the most iconic confrontations in civil rights history — with an image recognized the world over. The photograph captured the moment unarmed protesting kids were targeted with dogs and water hoses, the whole thing orchestrated by segregationist Bull Connor, Birmingham’s Commissioner of Public Safety, so-called.
Many years ago, I sat across from Rev. Walker with a camera crew for the documentary series “Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years.” I was there to capture his story as a participant in and witness to pivotal moments in civil rights history. As Rev. King’s chief of staff, he was known as a brilliant strategist. He might have been amused to know that according to his New York Times obituary, one Alabama surveillance report described him as “the real leader of the Negro movement.”
Wyatt Tee Walker knew his own strengths, but he was not threatened by being an orbiting planet in the solar system in which Rev. King was the sun. As he made clear, he was unafraid to take the heat. “I was the organization man. And so, whereas they would not want to confront Dr. King, … then I became the lightning rod.” Rev. Walker’s tough persona was woven into his no-nonsense, no-blink leadership. I won’t forget that on the day we met, he greeted me with a cool confidence and a precisely pointed gaze, which automatically caused me to straighten up in my chair. They simply don’t make them like that anymore.
Rev. Wyatt Tee Walker continued his social justice work right up to the end of his life. He was a fair housing advocate in New York City, where he was the long serving pastor of Harlem’s Canaan Baptist Church of Christ. He served as an adviser to Gov. Nelson Rockefeller and was a vocal advocate in the international movement against apartheid in South Africa.
Personally, I am appreciative of his commitment to social and legal justice, which created a pathway of opportunities for me. And I am forever grateful that Rev. Walker’s stories, told in his own voice, will live on in the "Eyes" series. Rest in peace, Wyatt T. Walker. You made history, and then some.