Reflections on a Fifty-Year Friendship with Wyatt Tee Walker by CRCDS President, Rev. Dr. Marvin A. McMickle
I was deeply saddened to hear of the death of The Rev. Dr. Wyatt Tee Walker, a 1975 Doctor of Ministry graduate from CRCDS. He was one of the twelve persons who comprised the Martin Luther King, Jr. Fellows who were the first D. Min. cohort in the United States that focused on African American church studies. Under the direction of Dr. Henry H. Mitchell, that cohort of twelve African American scholars and pastors produced some of the earliest research on the African American church including Dr. Walker’s heralded book, Somebody’s Calling My Name, that is one of the defining studies of music in the 19th century African American church before and after slavery. Walker would go on to author eight books, one entitled, Road to Damascus that focused on his 1983 trip to Damascus, Syria with Jesse Jackson to negotiate the release of U.S. Navy pilot Robert Goodman whose plane had been shot down by the Syrian government.
No one in that cohort was more deserving of the banner of being a King Fellow than Wyatt Tee Walker. Born in the same year of 1929, the two had been friends since Walker was a student at Virginia Union University School of Theology and King was a student at Crozer Theological Seminary in the early 1950s. From 1960 to 1964, Walker was one of the closest friends and advisors of Dr. King. He was the primary strategist for Project C which was the code name for the demonstrations that took place in Birmingham, Alabama in the spring of 1963. The letter C stood for confrontation, which is exactly what black residents of Birmingham did in standing up for an end to segregation in that city.
A little-known fact, is that Wyatt Tee Walker smuggled out of the Birmingham jail the now famous Letter from Birmingham Jail written by Dr. King as he sat in solitary confinement. The letter was written on the edges of The New York Times that Walker would smuggle in one day, and smuggle out the next day. That episode was a testament both to King’s brilliance to be able to write such a letter while sitting in confinement, and Walker’s courage and creativity in making sure King’s thoughts were shared with the world. Walker accompanied Dr. King to Oslo, Norway in 1964 when King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Walker was arrested seventeen times for his participation in non-violent civil rights demonstrations.
I first met Wyatt Tee Walker when I entered seminary in New York City in 1970. The first local church I attended was Canaan Baptist Church of Christ where Dr. Walker had been serving as Senior Pastor since 1968. Dr. King preached the installation sermon for Walker only two months before King was assassinated in Memphis, TN.
Our friendship blossomed when we began working together in the New York City chapter of Operation Breadbasket which was the economic justice arm of the Southern Christian Leadership Center. We worked together in support of Dr. William A. Jones, Jr., when Jones served as president of the Progressive National Baptist Convention in the mid-1970s; a convention founded to provide a national religious platform for Dr. King. Jones was another member of the original MLK, Jr. Fellows, and was an alumnus of both Crozer and CRCDS. Walker came to preach at the church I served in Montclair, NJ and again in Cleveland, OH. I was honored to write an entry on Wyatt Tee Walker in my Encyclopedia of African American Christian Heritage.
Between his years with King and becoming pastor of Canaan, Wyatt Tee Walker served as Special Assistant for Urban Policy to New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller. He was Chairman of the Board of Freedom National Bank, one of the few successful black owned and operated banks in the country. He was the editor of the Negro Heritage Library, a 10-volume study of African American life published in 1966. He had also been on the staff of Abyssinian Baptist Church also in Harlem under the leadership of The Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. who was also one of the most influential members of the U.S. Congress. Walker returned to preach at Abyssinian on many occasions when I served on the staff of that church. The pastor at that time was Dr. Samuel Proctor, another Crozer alumnus who had been president of Virginia Union University when Walker was a student at that school.
When Walker came to Canaan Baptist Church of Christ, he was able to draw upon all the resources and contacts he had developed with New York State and with Freedom Bank to blaze a trail in church-sponsored housing for senior citizens in the Harlem section of New York City. From 1968-2006 when he was forced to retire for health-related reasons, Wyatt Tee Walker and Canaan Baptist Church of Christ were on the cutting edge of urban ministry in terms of prophetic witness, political influence, social policy, and church-based programs that impacted people inside his church and beyond. One of his roles outside of Canaan Baptist Church of Christ occurred in 1994, when he was one of the election monitors in South Africa that resulted in the election of Nelson Mandela as the first black president of that country.
Walker was a fearless opponent of the drug trade going on in areas around his church. On more than one occasion, he moved his Sunday morning service outside of the church and preached in front of buildings known for drug use and drug trafficking. He faced more death threats for his opposition to the drug trade in New York City than he did for his opposition to segregation and racism in Birmingham, Alabama.
His status as a living legend was confirmed when the filmmaker, Spike Lee called upon Walker to play a key role in Lee’s film Malcolm X. It was Walker, portraying himself who announced to the Harlem community “The man you knew as Malcolm X is no more.” Sadly, the same words can now be said today, “The man we knew as Wyatt Tee Walker is no more.” He died peacefully in his sleep at an assisted living facility in Chester, VA. His long-time friend, Jesse Jackson said of Wyatt Tee Walker that “He comes from a time when civil rights leaders were martyrs, and not marketers.”
Rev. Marvin A. McMickle, Ph.D. President, Director of the Doctor of Ministry Program & Professor of African American Religious Studies at Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School.
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