Wyatt Tee Walker, civil rights leader, pastor and theologian, was born on August 16, 1929 in Brockton, Massachusetts to John Wise and Maude Pin Walker. Wyatt attended elementary and high school in Merchantville, New Jersey and earned a B.S. in chemistry and physics from Virginia Union University in Richmond in 1950. That same year, he married Theresa Ann Walker, with whom he’d have four children. In 1953, Walker received his Master of Divinity degree from Virginia Union’s Graduate School of Religion.
Later in 1953, Walker became pastor of Gillfield Baptist Church in Petersburg, Virginia. He also served as president of the local NAACP and as director of the state’s Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). Walker founded the Petersburg Improvement Association, patterned after the Montgomery Improvement Association. In 1958, Walker became a member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), headed by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He rose quickly in the organization; in 1960, King appointed Walker the executive director of SCLC and he was made King’s chief of staff, a post he held until 1964.
Walker’s civil rights participation reached beyond his administrative duties. On May 25, 1961, he was arrested in Birmingham, Alabama for participating in a Freedom Ride. Two years later, he helped organize the 1963 March on Washington.
On September 1, 1967, Walker relocated to New York City to become pastor of Canaan Baptist Church of Christ in Harlem. Under his dynamic leadership, Canaan’s congregation grew from 800 to 3,000. During this period, he also served as Urban Affairs Specialist to New York Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller. In 1975, Walker earned a Doctorate of Ministry degree from Colgate-Rochester Divinity School. Four years later, he released his first of several books: Somebody’s Calling My Name: Black Sacred Music and Social Change.
During the 1980s, Walker continued his community activism. He became a member of the National Committee on the American Committee on Africa. In 1988, he co-founded the Religious Action Network of Africa to challenge the repressive apartheid system in South Africa, and he served as chair of the Central Harlem Local Development Corporation, which built low-income housing.
In 1993, Walker received national recognition when Ebony magazine named him one of America’s “15 Greatest Black Preachers”. In 2004, Walker retired as pastor of Canaan. He earned more acclaim in 2008 when he was inducted into the Civil Rights “Walk of Fame” in Atlanta, Georgia. On January 18, 2009, during the inauguration events in Washington, D.C. for President Barack Obama, Walker received the “Keepers of the Flame” Award at the African-American Church Inaugural Ball.
Wyatt T. Walker passed away in Chester, Virginia on January 23, 2018. He was 88.