Wyatt Tee Walker, who died January 23 at age 88, stood beside Martin Luther King Jr., literally — at protests and marches for racial equality — and figuratively, as the driving organizational force of King’s civil rights work.
Walker played a pivotal role in ensuring the world saw King’s 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” one of the civil rights era’s defining documents, which lays out King’s eloquent defense of nonviolent protest against racial segregation.
After King was jailed in Birmingham, Alabama, in April 1963, for holding marches without a permit, he read in the city’s paper a letter by local religious leaders criticizing the protests. Without writing paper or reference materials, King composed his response on bits of newsprint and scrap paper.
Walker edited and typed King’s letter after King’s attorneys were able to smuggle these scraps of paper from the jail. “I thought it was important; it read like a letter from the Apostle Paul in the New Testament,” Walker told us in an interview several years ago. The letter “spoke to me,” he said. “The argument is so clear and incisive.”
King’s letter from Birmingham Jail was published widely and remains a testament to the power of free expression.
As King’s chief of staff, Walker helped plan the historic March on Washington in August 1963, as well as many other events that brought racial injustice to the foreground of American politics in the 1960s.
“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,” Walker told the New York Times in 2006. “Birmingham was the birthplace and affirmation of the nonviolent movement in America.”
Both Walker and King would return to Birmingham in 1967. This time both were arrested for participating in protests and shared a jail cell for five days. Walker sneaked in a camera and snapped an iconic picture of King.
An ordained minister, Walker preached throughout the South and at Canaan Baptist Church of Christ in Harlem for 37 years. In 1994, Walker was a supervisor of South Africa’s first open election, in which Nelson Mandela was elected president, ending apartheid, the long-standing policy of racial segregation.