Our common struggle: King, Walker, and us
By Dr. Joseph Evans
The late great Wyatt Tee Walker was the author of many published books, essays and articles. However, his magisterial work, about his relationship with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was unfinished at the time of his death on Jan. 23, 2018. The working title of the unpublished manuscript was “The King of Love: My Days with Martin Luther King Jr.” In the draft prologue he wrote, “As the thirty-second year marking Martin Luther King’s brutal assassination passes, this book must be written. With no intention of being grandiose, no one else living can write this book.”
In a recent interview in the University of Richmond Magazine, Walker was asked why he had not yet finished “King of Love.” He replied, “I think part of it was the awe that I maintained for Dr. King, that I didn’t feel I was ready. I still think I need to write about him sometime because I was very close to him, and I had many, many, many conversations with him.”
Walker was indeed an intimate friend to King and an eyewitness to the events that surrounded the martyred civil rights leader and Baptist preacher. Walker himself was the architect for the strategically planned and organized resistance campaign to Jim Crow and segregation. Perhaps the Birmingham boycott was premier. In fact, Walker played a prominent role in what became the 20th century’s most famous theological protest document:
The “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” was prompted by local clergymen, a rabbi and a black minister who said that this was not the time for protest action. King reacted to it. He was in jail, and his lawyers brought out his comments on the edge of newspapers and toilet paper and whatever paper they could provide him with.
I was the only one in Birmingham who could understand and translate King’s chicken-scratch writing. So I translated it. The Quakers, or Friends Committee, wanted to call it “Tears of Love,” and I told them no. It needed to be called what it was, a letter from a Birmingham jail. …which I think is the most important document of the 20th century.
A thorough reading of his manuscript reveals that Walker had opened a window into King’s private thoughts and emotions that few, if any, other publications have revealed. The following excerpt reveals Walker’s loyalty to the legacy of his authentic King:
For all of the above and more, there is a compelling rationale on the basis of this writer’s [Walker’s] theological connection to King. Both of us are legitimate heirs of the African American free church: Both of us are sons of preachers; our God-given intellects were honed by the discipline of completing earned doctorates; our nonviolent credo was fashioned in the classrooms of the academy but in the trenches of the Egypt-land of the Deep South; both of us have created a credible body of published works; and the center of our being is a personal commitment to Jesus Christ as Savior and Liberator. The uniqueness of these similarities provides an opportunity that so far as I know has not yet been seized by any of our contemporaries of our common struggle.
Although Walker left the daily operation of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1964, he remained close to King. In October 1967, it was Walker who took the iconic photograph of King while both were incarcerated in a Birmingham jail. And in his “The King of Love” manuscript, Walker described being stunned to learn of his friend’s murder, just days after King had preached at Walker’s own installation service.
But perhaps even more compelling than Walker’s raw emotion in the immediate aftermath of King’s assassination are Walker’s reflections that help us understand why the continuation of the Poor People’s Campaign is vital to the 21st-century church’s ethical imperative, which is to close the income and wealth gap.
One must reflect on the confluence of events that had brought Martin Luther King Jr. to Memphis at this time. It had become a critical detour on the road to the Poor People’s Campaign mobilization in which King was immersed. Not many people are aware that the genesis of the Poor People’s Campaign had begun in the wake of the Birmingham campaign. Shortly after returning to Atlanta following the historic settlement in the biggest and baddest city in the Deep South, there was considerable optimism within our ranks that if racist Birmingham had capitulated to the forces of nonviolence, no battleground of racial injustice would be inviolate to our assault. In an executive staff meeting at B.B. Beamon’s restaurant on Auburn Avenue, King opined that he was not nearly as sanguine on our optimism. There was no smile on his face as he soberly announced, “Until there is a fairer distribution of wealth in America, we are not going to make any major breakthroughs against racism!” This close-held view was at the heart of the Poor People’s Campaign. That and King’s stance against the war in Vietnam led to its architect’s death.
As early as 1963 then, King and others knew that economic reparations were necessary to make the oppressor and the oppressed legally equal in the public and private institutional spheres. And as his manuscript makes clear, Walker believed that the Poor People’s Campaign is what led to King’s assassination.
Walker and King shared a unique relationship from 1951 to 1968. It is their “common struggle” that obligates us to continue our fight for human rights. Thus, we are called to follow in the prophetic tradition of Walker’s and King’s legacy. We are heirs to their struggle. We are contemporary participants in their liberation march, and we are informed by their liberation narrative.
Dr. Joseph Evans is dean of the Morehouse School of Religion and a member of the homiletics faculty at the Interdenominational Theological Center, both Atlanta. Excerpted and adapted from Joseph Evans’ “Reconciliation & Reparation: Preaching Economic Justice” (Judson Press, 2018, pp. 35–41). Reprinted with permission of the publisher.
1. Wyatt Tee Walker, “The King of Love: My Days with Martin Luther King Jr.” (unpublished manuscript). In 1993, Walker began his work on Martin Luther King Jr. but did not finish it. The draft outline indicated that he intended 11 chapters, as well as a prologue and epilogue. Walker finished the prologue and first two chapters. He gave me the unfinished manuscript in the summer of 2017. My own efforts to tell the story of our poor people’s campaign has benefitted from my access to Walker himself, his papers and artifacts, and the incomplete “King of Love” manuscript.
2. Walker, “King of Love,” 4.
3. Paul Brockwell Jr., “Let Wyatt Handle This,” University of Richmond Magazine, January 18, 2017. See https://magazine.richmond.edu/features/article/-/13930/let-wyatt-handle-this.html?sma=sm.000001ou3l4a2sfd9vxnqm3l3746m. The feature article, adapted from an oral history filmed by the University of Richmond (for which I was the interviewer), was posted just days before Walker’s death.
5. Walker, King of Love, 10.
6. Ibid, 28–29.
The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.