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Civil Rights Icon Wyatt Tee Walker Dies

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The Rev. Dr. Wyatt Tee Walker, who served as an architect of the early civil rights campaigns in the South, died Tuesday. He was 88.

Walker – who managed to sneak a camera into a Birmingham jail to capture the iconic photograph of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. that would later accompany King’s famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail” – was the executive director and chief of staff to King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference from 1961 until 1964.

Dr. Wyatt Tee Walker with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Pastor of the historic Canaan Baptist Church of Christ in Harlem for 37 years, Walker was an iconic figure in New York and beyond, serving as a special assistant on urban affairs to New York Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller.

Prior to his installation as pastor of Canaan in 1968, which was officiated by King shortly before he was assassinated in Memphis, Walker served as an assistant minister at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem.

Walker and King met in the early 1950s while Walker was a student at Virginia Union University and King was enrolled at Crozer Theological Seminary. As an official within SCLC, Walker served multiple roles, including spearheading boycotts in Birmingham, Al. and serving as the official spokesperson for the civil rights organization that King and other preachers founded in 1957.

“Born the same year as Rev. Martin Luther King, Rev. Walker had fifty more years than his former SCLC colleague to carry out his earthly work,” said Dr. Françoise N. Hamlin, an associate professor of History and Africana Studies at Brown University and an expert on the civil rights movement. “Indeed, he remained a stalwart administrative and grassroots activist through the decades, working for human rights in various local, national and international organizations that he either founded or supported, as well as being a dedicated pastor to several congregations and a riveting preacher.”

A native of Brockton, Ma., Walker earned a master of divinity degree from Virginia Union and a doctorate from Colgate Rochester Divinity School in Rochester. (The Crozer seminary in Pennsylvania merged with Colgate Rochester in 1970).

A prolific writer and expert on gospel music, Walker served on the faculties of New York Theological Seminary, Union Theological Seminary in New York, Princeton Theological Seminary and United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio, where he was also the interim dean of doctoral studies.

“The passing of Dr. Wyatt Tee Walker marks the transition of one of the greatest social justice and theological minds of our time,” said civil rights leader Rev. Al Sharpton, who remained close to the preacher throughout the years. “While I am saddened by his passing, I am committed to carrying on his legacy. It is both a personal and global loss to me.”

Walker served as the first chairman of National Action Network, the civil rights organization that Sharpton founded in 1991.

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