Wyatt Tee Walker, Civil Rights Leader and Martin Luther King Jr’s Chief of Staff, 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.
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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.”

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SOURCE: New York Times, Fernanda Santos