Walker was born on August 16, 1929, in Brockton, Massachusetts, the tenth of eleven children, to Pastor John Wise Walker and Maude Pinn Walker. When he was still a baby, his family moved to Merchantville, New Jersey, where he received his primary and secondary education, and where, at nine years old, he and his siblings refused to be turned away from a segregated movie theater. After graduating with a bachelor of science degree in chemistry and physics from Virginia Union University in Richmond in 1950, he earned his master of divinity degree in 1953 from Virginia Union University. While in the seminary, Walker met Martin Luther King Jr. at an interseminary meeting while King was a student at Crozer Theological Seminary in Upland, Pennsylvania.
Petersburg, SCLC, and the Civil Rights Movement
Walker served as the pastor of Gillfield Baptist Church in Petersburg from 1953 until 1959. As such, he stood alongside King as one of a group of younger, more liberal, more activist ministers who became important leaders of the civil rights movement. Walker became the leader of several civil rights organizations: he was president of the local chapter of the NAACP and state director of CORE, and he founded the Petersburg Improvement Association, a group that was modeled after King’s Montgomery Improvement Association. The Petersburg Improvement Association organized protests against several of the city’s segregated facilities. In fact, Walker was arrested the first of his seventeen times in 1958 when he led his wife, children, and a few other preachers and students to the all-white Petersburg Public Library. According to the historian Taylor Branch, “Walker asked the librarian to give him the first volume of Douglas Southall Freeman‘s biography of Robert E. Lee” because it amused Walker “to think that white southerners would arrest him for trying to read about their most cherished hero.” He led the Petersburg Improvement Association in marches in Richmond protesting the closing of the schools in 1958, and he organized workshops in Norfolk to teach nonviolent strategies.
As a result of the success of the Petersburg Improvement Association, King appointed Walker in 1958 to the board of the newly founded SCLC, where Walker’s work led to the establishment of the state chapter in Virginia. In 1960, Walker became the first full-time executive director of SCLC. He brought financial stability and organizational structure to the group. He also was the architect of that organization’s “Project C” protest strategy in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963—a movement of marches, sit-ins, and boycotts of downtown merchants—which drew national and federal attention, and whose results led to King’s famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
In 1964 Walker left his post at the SCLC and started work as a marketing specialist for the Negro Heritage Library, of which he became president in 1966. Part of the library’s mission was to persuade schools to include the perspectives and experiences of African Americans in their curricula. In 1967, at King’s behest, Walker became the interim pastor of Canaan Baptist Church in Harlem, New York. There, on March 24, 1968, King served as the guest preacher at Walker’s installation service. Eleven days later, King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee.
In 1975 Walker earned his doctorate in African American studies with a specialization in music from Colgate Rochester Divinity School in Rochester, New York, and throughout the 1970s he served as New York governor Nelson Rockefeller’s urban affairs specialist. In 1978 Walker organized the International Freedom Mobilization to protest apartheid in South Africa. In 1979, Walker published the first of his many books, “Somebody’s Calling My Name”: Black Sacred Music and Social Change, in which he argued that “what Black people are singing religiously will provide a clue as to what is happening to them sociologically.”
After a period of illness that resulted in a major stroke in January 2003, Walker resigned as senior pastor of Canaan Baptist Church of Christ after thirty-seven years. In 2004 he was officially installed as Pastor Emeritus. On January 18, 2009, he was one of twenty-five honorees who received the “Keepers of the Flame” award at the African American Church Inaugural Ball, celebrating the inauguration of United States president Barack Obama. Walker died at an assisted-living facility in Chester on January 23, 2018.
- “Somebody’s Calling My Name”: Black Sacred Music and Social Change (1979)
- The Soul of Black Worship: A Trilogy—Preaching, Praying, Singing (1984)
- Road to Damascus: A Journey of Faith (1985)
- Spirits That Dwell Deep in the Woods: The Prayer and Praise Hymns of the Black Religious Experience (1987–1991)
- Gospel in the Land of the Rising Sun (1991)
- The Harvard Paper: The African-American Church and Economic Development (1994)
- Soweto Diary: The Free Elections in South Africa: Featuring the Original Poetry of Nathan Wright, Jr. (1994)
- A Prophet from Harlem Speaks: Sermons & Essays (1997)
- Race, Justice & Culture: Pre-Millennium Essays (1998)
- Millennium End Papers: The Walker File ’98–’99 (2000)
- My Stroke of Grace: A Testament of Faith Renewal (2002)