FREEDOM RIDERS: A glimpse into the lives of Mr. and Mrs. Wyatt Tee Walker

Fifty years after taking part in the June 1961 Freedom Rides, life has slowed down a bit for Dr. Wyatt Tee Walker. Once regarded as one of the more outspoken activists of human rights and peace, he has retired to a quiet Chester suburb with his wife of almost 60 years, Theresa, where their home is filled with memories of their life’s work.

Walker’s quest for racial equality didn’t begin with the Freedom Rides or even in 1953 when, after being called on as pastor at Gillfield Baptist Church, he led a group of African-Americans into a white library in Petersburg; he staged his first protest at nine years old when he and his siblings were denied entrance into a segregated theatre and instead entered the building and took their seats.

From then on a pattern continued, one that stemmed from something he perceived was innate and earned: “I felt I was an American just as anybody else was,” said Walker, 82.

As pastor of Gillfield, Walker’s leadership capabilities extended to two Virginia civil rights organizations, first serving as president of the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and then as state director of CORE (Congress of Racial Equality), which, in 1958, he co-founded. In 1960, he conducted sit-ins at the Trailways bus terminal with members of the PIA (Petersburg Improvement Association), which he also founded, subsequently leading to the desegregation of lunch counters within the terminal’s restaurants.

Through the success of these efforts, Walker became increasingly close to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., one of the most regarded leaders of the African-American Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. It was in 1960 when Dr. King appointed Walker the executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Not much longer down the road did Dr. King’s trust in Walker take to him on one of the most frightening journeys he would ever experience; two months after the original 13 Freedom Riders made their way through the South, intentionally transgressing upon the South’s rigid Jim Crow laws, he came face to face with some of the most violent racism this country would ever see.

“Dr. King assigned me to make a fact-finding tour because there was information we had that things were bad, and he wanted me to find out,” he said.

As a result, Walker was arrested numerous times through his participation in the Freedom Rides, often taking harsh beatings from Southern lawmen and citizens without any retaliation. But like the peaceful protests of Mohandas Gandhi, Leo Tolstoy, and Henry David Thoreau, Walker, in retrospect, feels that the non-violent protesting was the only tactic that could have worked for their cause.

“Any other technique would have killed our movement,” he said. “That gave life to it.”

Theresa, 83, whom he met while studying theology at Virginia Union University, accompanied him on the Freedom Rides. “His work with Dr. King was always life-threatening; so I just thought, ‘Well, this is my country and I want it to be the best it can be for my children to grow up in,’ ” she said. “I didn’t have any money to help out with the expenses of the Freedom Rides, so I went too – that was my contribution.”

From her protests with the Freedom Riders, she, too, was placed in jail and arrested three times. An accountant and woman of service for much of her adult life, it took Theresa 30 years to come to terms with what they had experienced with the Freedom Rides.

Not long after the Freedom Rides, Walker played an immense role in the Birmingham Campaign in 1963 as the chief strategist for “Project C,” which was a detailed plan to address confrontation with the local law authorities and city officials. There he also orchestrated key events in the Civil Rights Movement: sit-ins, other freedom rides, protests and marches. Later in 1963, Walker also helped organize and participated in the March on Washington, where Dr. King delivered his famous “I have a dream” speech.

In the two years to come, Walker and all of the other strong forces in the movement celebrated success when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act.

The following years, Walker was called as Senior Pastor of Canaan Baptist Church in Harlem, New York, where he often hosted people like South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, whose country struggled against colonialism and apartheid – the focus of Walker after the success of the African-American Civil Rights Movement. In the 1970s, he served as Urban Affairs Specialist to Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller.

Since the eradication of Jim Crow laws, Walker has become a published writer, authoring 29 books on human rights, the Christian ministry, and African-American musical traditions. One of which was “Somebody’s Calling My Name,” published by Judson Press, that sold 20,000 copies.

He has also earned his Ph.D. in African-American studies, and has been a professor at Virginia Union University’s School of Theology. A world traveler, Walker has visited over 100 countries, has been in Spike Lee’s film “Malcom X” as a hotel administrator, and starred in an “Off-Broadway” play.  

A complete list of Walker’s accomplishments can be found in libraries, newspaper archives, and all over the Internet.

In 2009, when Barrack Obama was sworn in as President of the United States, Dr. Walker could hardly believe America had come so far since the 1960s. “It was incredible, I couldn’t speak,” he said. “Dr. King would think it would be a great step forward and a fulfillment in his mission … of what we were fighting for.” Meeting President Obama has become a definite goal for Walker ever since.

“That things are happening for the better. We’re not a perfect country yet, but we’re working on it; and we hope the young people will keep working on it,” Theresa said.  I have a lot of faith in young people, the younger generations. I think we’re in good hands.”

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