Hundreds of mourners from near and far packed into a Harlem church Saturday to bid farewell to civil rights hero Rev. Wyatt Tee Walker.
The former chief of staff to Martin Luther King Jr. was remembered as a pioneering figure whose deep faith and bold activism drove protests against racial injustice in the 1960s and later helped build the Canaan Baptist Church of Christ.
“He knew every place and everyone by name,” said the Rev. Dr. Sherry Austin of Atlanta.
“He walked with kings and queens but never lost the common touch.”
“It’s time for us to rise up,” she added. “His legacy is us.”
Walker died Jan. 23 at an assisted living facility near his home in Chester, Va., at the age of 88.
As the leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Walker played a key role in the fight against segregation in Birmingham, Ala., in the 1960s.
He helped organize the 1963 March on Washington and was picked to be King’s chief of staff the following year.
His reputation was further burnished when he carried handwritten notes out of a Birmingham lockup that came to be known as King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”
Walker went on to become pastor at the Canaan Baptist Church where he used his pulpit to advance social justice causes at home and as far away as South Africa for nearly four decades.
He also found time to author 29 books.
In a moving eulogy, the Rev. Dr. W. Franklyn Richardson recalled being a wide-eyed freshman at Virginia Union University nearly 50 years ago when he was asked to pick up the Harlem preacher, who was in town visiting his alma mater.
“I never knew that that encounter that day would be so impacting upon my life,” said Richardson, the senior pastor at Grace Baptist Church in Mount Vernon.
“I had the great privilege of his friendship and his mentorship.
“We walked together. We prayed together. We cried together. We went to jail together. We walked all over European countries and Egypt, and the Holy Land.”
A church choir of nearly 50 people sang numerous selections, including a hymn written by Walker himself.
City Controller Scott Stringer was among the elected officials who squeezed into pews alongside Walker’s friends and supporters.
Friday’s nasty weather prevented Theresa Ann Walker, his wife of over 67 years, from making the service.
After her flight from Virginia was canceled, she hopped on an Amtrak train but never made it past Washington, D.C.
The couple’s son Wyatt Tee Walker Jr. told the mourners of the darker side of his father’s notoriety, recalling how the family shuttled to different locations amid threats of violence.
“I only found out two years ago that we had to be protected when we were children,” Walker Jr. said.
“We couldn’t go outside and play. I was always wondering why we had to go to Rev. (Ralph) Abernathy’s house, or Rev. King’s.”
The younger Walker noted that his father, despite his lofty standing, regularly yielded to the authority of his loving wife.
“He always had the last word in the house — ‘Yes, dear,’” Walker Jr. said.