Wyatt Tee Walker and the Birmingham Tapes

Lynda Kachurek, Taylor McNeilly, and Corey D. B. Walker
University of Richmond

There were several necessary ingredients that made the Birmingham movement the huge success that it was, and chief among these was the fact that the Birmingham movement was a great singing movement.” - Wyatt Tee Walker

1963 not only marked the centennial anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, it also stood as a pivotal year in the long black freedom struggle. The Birmingham Campaign brought the drama of the Civil Rights Movement to the center of American public life. Widely acknowledged by movement leaders and scholars as a crucial turning point, Birmingham unleashed all the tensions that long riddled the American experiment with democracy. In many ways, Birmingham was a microcosm of the American nation – a polity rife with systemic racism and institutionalized violence countered by a people straining against hope for the realization of a new nation and an authentic democracy.

Into this cauldron of hate fueled violence and infinite hope, Wyatt Tee Walker brought together local and national organizations and leaders to transform Birmingham’s cultural and political landscape. As the architect Project C, Walker tapped the wellsprings of the black organizing tradition in creating a movement designed to bring the full thrust of direct action to cripple Birmingham’s formidable system of segregation. Indeed, it was the wedding of this rich organizing culture and a bold strategy that created such a unique episode in the modern black freedom movement.

Walker’s Birmingham strategy reminds us that the power of protest and direct action is fueled by the dedication and fortitude everyday citizens committed to change. This is a lesson Walker’s predecessor at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Ella J. Baker, recognized when she stated, “The movement made the leaders rather than the leaders made the movement.” Leadership is not only about strategy, it is also about affect. How do you mobilize individuals to take a leap for freedom?

The Birmingham tapes offer us a unique perspective into the world Wyatt Tee Walker inhabited. A world in which he lived and breathed and was the everyday of his existence. A world where everyday individuals were transformed into an army of freedom. It was this world where Walker understood the dialectic between strategy and affect. Indeed, in the July 1963 issue of Negro Digest Walker writes, “It is safe to say that the Freedom Movement in the South is a ‘singing movement’.”

The songs of freedom not only affirmed the dignity of movement activists, but they also gave expression to an emerging world beyond segregation, discrimination, and violence. What the Birmingham tapes make available to us is the texture of freedom – beyond proper names, cities, institutions, and leaders. It is the multitude of people that constitute the texture of the freedom struggle. The ordinary people who forge a political language of freedom in the rhythms, moans, shouts, affirmations of dignity in the mass meeting. The sounds of freedom are thick and resonant with the multiple meanings of a deep humanity that stretches the limits of the imagination.

The Birmingham tapes offer an aural tapestry of an authentic freedom movement. The worlds captured on tape may escape us when we attempt to think the Civil Rights Movement according to a linear narrative and chronology of history. The sounds of these worlds move to a temporality that is a dialogue between past, present, and future in reminding students and scholars of the limitations of a purely textual rendering of the movement. The Birmingham tapes not only remind us of the pivotal position of this city in the long black freedom struggle, but also serve as a critical reminder that the landscape of this southern industrial center was home to competing and contrasting visions of the meaning of life in modern America. Perhaps it is this sense that is registered in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. when he refers to Birmingham as “a magic city.”

The Birmingham tapes gives us a glimpse into the world the Black Freedom movement. A rhythmic existence where African Americans create and recreate a democracy that was denied them by dominant political institutions and cultural norms, but affirmed by them each time they gathered to meet, speak, sing, shout, and pray. The tapes bring to life the true nature of the radical act of affirmation of the mass meeting – the affirmation of black humanity, black dignity, and a blackness that stretched back to the beginning of the universe itself.

On the tapes we hear the rich dialogues between speaker and audience – the proverbial call and response of the Black Church tradition. We are able to glean a sense of the comradery that bonded neighbor to neighbor in cause of freedom. New congregations and fresh expressions of community are improvised. The exhortations of speakers punctured by political satire and leavened by the prophetic language of African American Christianity are critically interwoven into performative acts of sermonic freedom. A plurality of forms of speech and embodied testimony attest to the plasticity of language that moves the political imagination effortlessly between transcendence and history.

These meetings foreground a democracy to come. The songs, words, and community inaugurated at each meeting expands the imagination of the gathered polis. Birmingham births a new nation under the sovereignty of a new people – an authentic and inclusive “We the People”.

The Birmingham tapes remind us that democracy is an endless meeting. It is constructed and reconstructed in the gathering of people who are captured by visions of radical possibility. The affirmations by the community remind us of the organic nature of the Birmingham campaign. The rhythms and rituals of freedom remind us of the heritage of the freedom tradition as well as the ways in which the modern freedom movement improvised on this tradition.

What we hear on the Birmingham tapes is nothing other than what noted activist Prathia Hall termed “freedom-faith.” It is this “freedom-faith” that Wyatt Tee Walker harnessed in Project C and that remade Birmingham and America.

Lynda Kachurek is head of Rare Books and Special Collections at Boatwright Memorial Library.

Taylor McNeilly is processing and reference archivist at Boatwright Memorial Library.

Corey D. B. Walker is visiting professor at University of Richmond.

Select Resources

Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-1963 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988).

Glenn T. Eskew, But for Birmingham: The Local and National Movements in the Civil rights Struggle (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997).

Adam Fairclough, To Redeem the Soul of America: The Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Martin Luther King, Jr. (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1987).

David Garrow, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1986).

David G. Holmes, Where the Sacred and Secular Harmonize: Birmingham Mass Meeting Rhetoric and the Prophetic Legacy of the Civil Rights Movement (Eugene: Cascade Books, 2017).

Shana L. Redmond, Anthem: Social Movements and the Sound of Solidarity in the African Diaspora (New York: New York University Press, 2013).

Wyatt Tee Walker, “Somebody’s Calling My Name”: Black Sacred Music and Social Change (Valley Forge: Judson Press, 1982).

Birmingham Campaign Recordings Notes

Ten mass meetings from the Birmingham Campaign are recorded across eight audio cassettes. The Birmingham Campaign began on April 3, 1963 and continued until May 10, 1963. For more information on the Birmingham Campaign and SCLC’s involvement with it, please visit the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute’s webpage on the Birmingham Campaign.

These meetings date from April 9, 1963 through May 10, 1963. They are held at a number of locations, most commonly the 6th Avenue Baptist Church. Speakers at the meetings include the Revs. Fred Shuttlesworth, Ralph Abernathy, Martin Luther King Jr. and Sr., Wyatt Tee Walker, and others.

The audio cassettes are re-recordings made by C. Herbert Oliver, the original recordist, and Charles H. Oliver II in 1991. While the meetings were not recorded onto the cassettes in chronological order, we have ordered them appropriately below. Transcriptions for each cassette are also available.

April 9, 1963 Meeting: Part One (transcript) / Part Two (transcript)

April 11, 1963 Meeting: Part One (transcript) / Part Two (transcript) / Part Three (transcript)

April 12, 1963 Meeting: Part One (transcript) / Part Two (transcript)

April 17, 1963 Meeting: Part One (transcript) / Part Two (transcript) / Part Three (transcript)

April 22, 1963 Meeting: Part One (transcript) / Part Two (transcript) / Part Three (transcript)

April 25, 1963 Meeting: Part One (transcript) / Part Two (transcript)

May 1, 1963 Meeting: Part One (transcript) / Part Two (transcript) / Part Three (transcript)

May 2, 1963 Meeting: Part One (transcript) / Part Two (transcript)

May 3, 1963 Meeting: Part One (transcript) / Part Two (transcript)

May 10, 1963 Meeting: Part One (transcript) / Part Two (transcript) / Part Three (transcript)