Civil rights icon shares story of struggles
By BLAKE BELDEN, staff writer
Mar 4, 2014, 14:38
Blake Belden/Hopewell News/News-Patriot
CHESTERFIELD — Sitting amidst four walls lined from corner to corner with bookshelves soaked in history, a man who walked alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and even spent a week in jail with the civil rights icon, sat before a crowd populated by all races.
Dr. Wyatt Tee Walker, a former Petersburg minister and chief strategist to King during his civil rights campaign in the early 1960s, gazed out from behind a set of brown-rimmed glasses and a gray mustache, and shared his journey.
“It has been a marvelous ride and we have got a marvelous result from using King’s method of nonviolence against racism in the United States. If it had not been for him and his purposefulness and his tenacity, a lesser person would have given up long ago with the kind of conditions we faced in the South,” Walker said.
Walker came to James River High School as part of an educational community discussion between both high school students and adults on civil rights with specific focus on the Freedom Riders, anti-segregationists, black and white, who rode segregated buses into southern states to challenge the constitutional practice of discrimination, many times getting beaten or arrested for their actions.
In 1961, when the Freedom Riders and civil rights proponents had made their presence known in the nation, more than a thousand, along with King, Walker and the major civil rights leaders of the era, were ambushed in a church by a mob in Montgomery, Ala.
Southern segregationists surrounded the church hurling rocks and bricks through the windows, setting fire to the surrounding area, all because they wanted equality for all humans, an act so brutal the federal government finally had to step in and take action.
“[The mob] drove a truck in with cinderblocks and chopped, broke it up. Then they threw tear gas into the church and when we fled to come out, they were going to stone us with cinderblocks. ... And that was about the only time that there was aggressive action on the part of the Kennedys. They federalized the National Guard and that was what saved us from being slaughtered in Montgomery, Ala., but it was a terrible, terrible night. It was so many times I thought I was going to die, and that was one of them,” Walker said."Despite the incredible dangers that Walker faced during the civil rights movement, he admitted that it “was a great time to be alive, and I’m proud that I had a chance to be a part of it.”
Jack Gravely, a radio talk show host and former director of the Virginia NAACP who helped facilitate the discussion, said that civil rights would be nowhere close to what they are today without men like King and Walker, and that he was in the presence of a true hero.
“This is a man who walked with, talked with, ate with, travelled with, got threatened with Dr. Martin Luther King ... and you don’t see guys like that around very much, and that’s why he is such a hero to me because although he never, ever stepped foot before I did on the grounds of the University of Virginia, I went to U.Va. because guys like [Walker] opened the doors,” Gravely said.
Walker said that he was arrested 17 times during his nonviolent struggle for civil rights.
Gravely emphasized the courage and sacrifice of the Freedom Riders, who left the comfort of their homes of colleges to ride into the inevitable face of danger, and that often times the white riders would be beaten more severely than black riders as a message for the whites to stay out of it.
“One of the misfortunes of the civil rights movement in America, and part of this is about the people who wrote about it, [is] the young white kids who went on those Freedom Rides have never been given their just due,” Gravely said.
Gravely was in junior high school during the time of the Freedom Riders, and admits that he wishes he could have been a part of that movement.
“But I’m not going to lie to you, I don’t know if I would have,” Gravely said. “I would have been afraid, but I really wish I had the spirit and the courage and the opportunity that the Freedom Riders had to do it.”
Many high school students in the audience spoke out saying that they had not learned about the Freedom Riders through their class curriculum.
Gravely said that it is sad to hear that kids aren’t being taught about pivotal elements of the civil rights movement, but he understands why that is the case in public classrooms.
“People in the United States education system talk about victories and good times. They don’t like to talk about the hard times and there’s another issue. ... A lot of people in America are absolutely petrified and fearful of talking about race and making statements that may be considered stupid,” Gravely said.
But instead of perpetuating a mindset of unknowing, Gravely said that it is critical for the community, especially young people, to understand the history of the civil rights movement and the Freedom Riders.
“Not pushing it down their throats, not trying to indoctrinate them. Just tell them and show them the facts from newsreels, from press reports, from statements of the individuals there. They need to know so they have a better understanding where this country has been, where it is now and where it can go,” Gravely said earnestly.
Dillon Richards, a student from Thomas Dale High School, said that he had been told about the Freedom Riders while he was growing up, and he was surprised to find out that a lot of other students his age were unaware of this happening.
“I feel as though people really do need to know about that because we know about who paved the way for the first presidency to now, but we don’t about who paved the way from us being slaves,” Richards said.
Richards said the discussion gave him a newfound sense of how “heavy” the civil rights movement actually was for those involved, and the strength they used to overpower their fears to stand up in the face of serious danger.
“They knew in their hearts and in their minds that this is something that they needed to do, not something that they wanted to do,” Richards said.
Chris Ruth, the assistant director of public affairs for Chesterfield County, said that this was the first of four community discussions revolving around the “Created Equal” film series, documentaries that highlight movements for human rights in American history, where the audience will view certain clips from the films and then conduct kitchen-table discussions with the people around them about the content of the clip.
Ruth said the purpose is to get “people to talk about issues that are difficult” and that “we’re thrilled to have an opportunity to do this.”
The discussion was organized in part by Chesterfield County Black History Committee, Chesterfield County Public Schools and the Chesterfield Public Library.