Dr. Wyatt Tee Walker remembered at service
2/22/2018, 7:57 p.m.
By Leah Hobbs
The life and impact of Dr. Wyatt Tee Walker was remembered Saturday during a memorial service for the noted civil rights leader and minister held at Petersburg’s Gillfield Baptist Church.
“I wonder if the people of Petersburg are aware of your place and significance in American, dare I say, global history, for it was here that God chose Dr. Walker to work in the arena of history,” Dr. Joseph N. Evans, dean of the Morehouse School of Religion in Atlanta, told the gathering of more than 300 people.
“So we come here today to this citadel of the faith to pay tribute to the man.”
Dr. Walker, 88, who served as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s chief strategist in his role as executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in the 1960s, died Tuesday, Jan. 23, in Chester, where he lived for the last 14 years.
After earning his bachelor’s degree in chemistry and physics and a master’s in divinity from Virginia Union University, he began his ministry and activism in Petersburg, where he was pastor of Gillfield Baptist in 1953, along with Mt. Level Baptist Church in Dinwiddie.
He served as president of the Petersburg Branch NAACP, leading nonviolent protests against segregated public facilities, including the city’s public library, swimming pool and lunch counters at the bus terminal. He was arrested 17 times.
He and his wife of 67 years, Theresa Ann Walker, his college sweetheart, were “Freedom Riders,” protesting segregated interstate public transportation by riding buses with interracial groups into Southern states in defiance of Jim Crow travel laws.
He played a key role in devising boycotts and demonstrations for Dr. King, including the August 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and raising money to support the SCLC’s crucial civil rights work.
He also was instrumental in circulating Dr. King’s famous “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” written in April 1963.
Later, as pastor of Canaan Baptist Church in Harlem from 1966 until a stroke forced his retirement in 2004, he led the church’s development of affordable housing, retail stores and a senior services center. He also founded a charter school in Harlem.
Dignitaries, including 4th District Congressman A. Donald McEachin, state Sens. Rosalyn R. Dance of Petersburg and Jennifer L. McClellan of Richmond, and Mayor Levar M. Stoney, attended the service, while an officiant said the Walker family has received letters of tribute and sympathy from former President Clinton, U.S. Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, Congressman John Lewis of Georgia, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Virginia Gov. Ralph S. Northam and Lt. Gov. Justin E. Fairfax, to name a few.
Dr. Evans described how Dr. Walker and Dr. King met on the campus of Virginia Union University in the 1950s.
“Who would have thought, and how could we see, that he would plan the movements of our time that changed history,” he said.
Dr. Walker was a mentor to many, including Dr. Dwight C. Jones, a VUU graduate and senior pastor of First Baptist Church of South Richmond, who represented Richmond in the Virginia House of Delegates and served eight years as Richmond’s mayor until December 2016.