RICHMOND — On a cold day in 1960, a fed-up Wyatt Tee Walker led a group of protesters through the “whites-only” entrance of the Petersburg, Va., public library.
Walker, the pastor of the historic Gillfield Baptist Church, calmly walked to the library’s counter and asked for a biography of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
“I was rubbing it in their noses a little because I always felt Robert E. Lee was guilty of treason and should have been arrested and put in prison,” said Walker, now 87, “but the South made such a hero of him.”
His attempt to borrow “R.E. Lee: A Biography, Vol. 1” by Douglas Southall Freeman on Feb. 27, 1960, was interrupted by shouts.
“I heard somebody say, ‘The niggers are here!’ ” recalled Walker, who would later serve as chief of staff for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. “They called the police and arrested those of us who would not leave. They took us to the Petersburg jail, and that stirred up the community.”
It was the first of Walker’s 17 arrests for challenging segregation in Virginia and other parts of the South — an era vividly chronicled in the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opens Sept. 24. The Petersburg library sit-in would become a catalyst for desegregating the small city’s lunch counters, bus terminal, restaurants and public swimming pools.
Were they courageous? “Maybe so,” Walker said. “But we didn’t think about fear. We wanted to get rid of segregation. It was so humiliating to be an African American in those days.”
Tapped by King to be the first full-time executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Walker challenged Jim Crow in Mississippi and Alabama.
He and King were arrested during a 1967 protest in Birmingham and spent five days together in jail. Walker smuggled in a tiny camera, taping it to his leg. In their cell, he took a photo of King gazing through the steel bars that became an iconic image. King snapped a photo of Walker looking out the same bars. Six months later, King was assassinated in Memphis.
Walker spoke about the events that defined his life and redefined the country in the community room of his assisted-living complex, which he navigates with the help of a wheelchair. His wife, Theresa Ann Walker, 89, who was jailed alongside him in Jackson, Miss., sat nearby with one of their four children, Robert Walker, 60. She still lives in their home just south of Richmond and visits her husband every day.
Wyatt Tee Walker is one of the few civil rights movement strategists still alive.
He was born Aug. 16, 1929, in Brockton, Mass. His father, who was a minister, and his mother, who was a nurse, moved the family to Merchantville, N.J., where Walker grew up as one of 11 children. When Wyatt was young, he and his two older sisters desegregated the town’s movie theater.
“The picture playing was ‘The Great Lie,’ ” he recalled.
Walker’s father had a huge influence on him. “He was what they called a race man,” Walker said. “He resisted anything that discriminated against you because you were African American. He was very outspoken against it.”
In 1946, Wyatt Walker moved to Richmond to attend Virginia Union University, graduating magna cum laude with a bachelor’s of science degree in chemistry and physics. He went on to Virginia Union Graduate School of Theology, where he met King during a student conference.
Years later, as Walker led integration efforts in Virginia, King called to recruit him.
“He asked me to become executive director” of SCLC, the civil rights group King and other ministers had founded in 1957, Walker recalled. “And I told him whatever he wanted me to do, I would do it.”
On May 24, 1961, the Walkers and dozens of Freedom Riders boarded buses heading for Jackson. For the first time, Walker said, he felt fear.
“Mississippi was more dangerous then than anywhere else,” he said. “The lynchings, the students killed, so many bad things had happened in Mississippi.”
When the bus arrived in Jackson, the riders got off and walked into the terminal waiting room reserved for whites. “We weren’t there five minutes before we were arrested,” he said.
His wife, Theresa, was arrested too.
“It was a terrible experience,” she said. “I didn’t talk about it for 30 years. Then I found my notes.”
On a thin piece of paper, Theresa had kept copious notes in blue ink detailing their incarceration: “Breakfast grits black coffee. No toilet articles yet. No phone call yet.”
The jailers divided the Freedom Riders by race and gender.
“There were about 14 of us in a cell for two people,” Theresa recalled. “Some slept on the floor, the mattresses were dirty. The toilet was open. People walking by the jail could look in. If you wanted to shower, the water was cold. If you wanted a drink, the water was hot.”
The jailers slid food on a tray underneath the door.
“At night, while the girls were sleeping, bugs were crawling on the girls,” she said. During the day, “The Salvation Army people would come by and tell us we were all going to hell, told us we were all sinners for riding on that bus.”
The male Freedom Riders, including her husband, were being held in another cell.
At night, “We could hear them singing, so we would sing back to them,” she said. “The jailers would always tell us be quiet and shut up.”
After a week, the Walkers were finally allowed to make a phone call. Theresa Walker was desperate to make bail and get out.
“Someone told us they were going to move us” to the state penitentiary in Parchman, Miss., where at least 300 Freedom Riders were eventually held. “And when you got to Parchman,” she said, “they did vaginal searches with no gloves. I had children.” They managed to get word to King that they needed help to get released.
The following year, Wyatt Walker traveled to Birmingham to prepare for Project C, which stood for “confrontation.”
“Dr. King said if we could crack Birmingham,” Walker said, “we could crack the South.”
He and others called the city “Bombingham” because it was so segregated and so hostile to blacks, he said. “Churches and houses were bombed by the racists — all presided over by Bull Connor,” the city’s feared public safety commissioner.
Walker spent a year choreographing how the protests would unfold in minute detail. Word got around that “King’s man was in town,” he said. But no one knew who that man was.
The demonstrations in Birmingham became the turning point for the civil rights movement. On Good Friday, April 12, 1963, King was arrested and spent eight days in jail, where he penned his famous essay, “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” It is often illustrated with the photo taken by Wyatt Walker four years later.
Two weeks after King’s release, hundreds of black children streamed out of the 16th Street Baptist Church to demand integration and were met with fire hoses and snarling police dogs — images that shocked much of the country. President John F. Kennedy warned that the events in Birmingham “have so increased the cries for equality that no city or state or legislative body can prudently choose to ignore them.”
The momentum from Birmingham fueled the March on Washington, which took place on Aug. 28, 1963.
Walker walked the Mall as day broke and watched black and white marchers gather by the tens of thousands along the Reflecting Pool. They wore crisp dresses, strings of pearls and pressed suits, and many carried signs demanding justice.
Walker made one decision that day that he still regrets.
“I tried to persuade Dr. King not to use the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech,” he said. “I had heard it so many times, I thought it was trite.”
But all ministers have what they call a “going home point,” a strong closing to a sermon, and that was his. Mahalia Jackson, who’d performed “How I Got Over,” whispered to King, “Tell them about the dream, Martin.”
Walker recalled King swinging into his closing, his voice rising in his trademark oratorical style. Walker watched the crowd’s reaction as King described a world without segregation, without racism, without injustice.
“It was a world-stage moment,” he said. And it forever changed the people who heard it, then and in the decades to come.
About this series
This is the second story in an occasional series on people connected to the figures or events or featured in the Smithsonian’s new African American Museum of History and Culture, which opens Sept. 24.