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Reverend Dr. Wyatt T. Walker

The Reverend Dr. Wyatt Tee Walker (August 16, 1929 – January 23, 2018) was a major figure in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, as well as a prominent minister, theologian of the black religious tradition, and scholar and composer of black gospel music. Dr. Walker was also a developer of affordable housing in New York City and co-founder of the first charter school approved by the State University of New York.

Dr. Walker’s civil rights activities began while he was pastor of Gillfield Baptist Church in Petersburg, VA. Most notably he worked to integrate the Petersburg Public Library and the lunch counters at bus stop cafes in the city. Dr. Walker left Gillfield to become the first full-time executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), where he worked closely with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whom he had met while in seminary at Virginia Union University in Richmond, VA.

Working with SCLC and Dr. King, Dr. Walker would plan and organize several major civil rights protests, including Project C, known more widely as the Birmingham Movement that culminated in A Letter from Birmingham Jail and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the March on Washington and its famous “I Have A Dream” speech. He was also arrested as part of the Freedom Rides, along with his wife, in Jackson, MS in 1961. Dr. Walker left SCLC and eventually moved to Harlem, NY to become the senior pastor for Canaan Baptist Church of Christ. He remained close friends with Dr. King until King’s assassination in 1968, after which he organized the funeral and homegoing service at the personal request of Coretta Scott King.

Dr. Walker remained at Canaan Baptist for 37 years, during which time he also worked with Governor Rockefeller as Special Assistant for Urban Affairs and became the largest single developer of affordable housing in New York City. Dr. Walker is also responsible for the construction of the Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. State Office Building.

Throughout his time at Canaan Baptist, Dr. Walker remained active in civil rights activism. In 1978, he worked to fight apartheid in South Africa by organizing the International Freedom Mobilization. Dr. Walker also worked as an election monitor during Nelson Mandela’s election in 1994. His church would be the first stop on Nelson Mandela’s first visit to the United States as president of South Africa that same year.

Dr. Walker retired from Canaan Baptist Church of Christ in 2004 and moved to Virginia, although he remained active as a visiting professor and theologian at multiple institutions, including at the School of Theology of his alma mater, Virginia Union University. He passed away January 23, 2018.

Dr. Walker and his wife, Theresa Ann Walker, donated the Dr. and Mrs. Wyatt Tee Walker Collection to the University of Richmond in 2016. While the collection is currently undergoing archival processing, a portion of the collection’s audiovisual material has been opened to researchers. Some material can be accessed through the Walker Collection Birmingham Tapes page while some material can only be accessed on-site. Please contact Taylor McNeilly for research requests. For more information, please visit the Something Uncommon blog, where processing progress updates are regularly posted. A LibGuide with further biographical details about Dr. Walker is also available.