Critical race theory, or CRT, is in the news these days but many people still may not know what it really means. They think CRT is part of the Rev. Martin Luther King’s civil rights efforts. In truth, it is directly opposed to the central concept and vision he most stood for. One of the last and greatest civil rights leaders of our time — and one of King’s closest friends and advisers — did understand CRT, and explicitly rejected it.
Dr. Wyatt Tee Walker (pictured, at right) was a legend in the American civil rights movement. Executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in the critical years of 1960-1964, he was a co-founder of CORE (the Congress of Racial Equality), chief of staff to King, and King’s “field general” in the organized resistance against notorious Birmingham safety commissioner “Bull” Connor. Walker compiled and named King’s “The Letter From Birmingham Jail.” He was with King for the march on Washington that produced the “I have a dream” speech, and in Oslo for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Afterward, Dr. Walker came north to New York City to serve as minister of the Canaan Baptist Church of Christ in Harlem. He was one of the nation’s most respected ministers until his death in 2018. In his book “David and Goliath,” Malcolm Gladwell dedicated a chapter to Dr. Walker and his work in Birmingham. The cover of Ebony magazine called Walker “The Man Behind Martin Luther King.” In short, no one may have known King’s thoughts better or been closer to them than Dr. Walker.
Even as he aged, Dr. Walker never backed down from the passionate pursuit of civil rights for all. Later in his life, he was chairman of the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network and a supporter of reparations for African Americans. I got to know him soon after Amadou Diallo had been horribly gunned down in New York City in 1999. We joined together to form New York’s first and longest-surviving charter school, now named the Sisulu-Walker Charter School of Harlem. We stayed friends from that time until he died.
In 2015, Dr. Walker and I co-authored an essay about education reform and race relations, where we wrote:
“Today, too many ‘remedies’ — such as Critical Race Theory, the increasingly fashionable post-Marxist/postmodernist approach that analyzes society as institutional group power structures rather than on a spiritual or one-to-one human level — are taking us in the wrong direction: separating even elementary school children into explicit racial groups, and emphasizing differences instead of similarities. [ … ]