Originally created 01/17/99

Walker's fiery oratory inspired blacks



Augusta's C.T. Walker boldly denounced the second-class status of America's blacks decades before the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. or Malcolm X were born.

He stirred thousands of people to convert to Christianity and formed one of the prominent churches in Augusta while making forays into journalism and business.

In the process, Charles Thomas Walker became one of the most recognized names in America at the turn of the century.

But it was not without facing his share of adversity.

Born a slave in Hephzibah in 1858, Dr. Walker did not feel bitterness, according to historian Silas X. Floyd, a friend and biographer.

"Dr. Walker has the courage which faces difficulties, braves rebuke and ... is not afraid of harsh names and ugly epithets," the Rev. Floyd wrote in 1902.

Orphaned at age 8 -- his father died a day before he was born and his mother a year after being granted freedom in 1865 -- Dr. Walker was forced to mature beyond his years.

Using the Christian church and his family for support, Dr. Walker moved on with his education at schools set up for the children of former slaves.

It wasn't long before his calling to become a minister displaced other ambitions. He entered Augusta Institute -- which later moved to Atlanta to become Morehouse College -- for ministerial training.

Despite his small stature -- he stood 5 feet 6 inches tall -- Dr. Walker was known for his fiery oratory.

After preaching three years in LaGrange, Ga., he returned to Augusta in 1883. In 1885, then 27, he helped organize Tabernacle Baptist Church, one of the most influential churches to be founded in Augusta.

Moving to keep the community united and informed, Dr. Walker started one of Augusta's first minority newspapers, Augusta Sentinel, in 1884.

Dr. Walker's opposition to the "separate but equal" status of American blacks became more pronounced after his pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 1891.

On his return to America, Dr. Walker wrote about the irony of an already burgeoning immigrant class that seemed to outdo blacks born in the United States.

"These very people come to America to supercede the Negro and to boss him!" he wrote.

The frustration of watching poor, white immigrants succeeding where blacks failed because of racism became a recurring theme in Dr. Walker's talks after he moved to New York City to be pastor of Mount Olive Baptist Church in 1899.

By 1900, Dr. Walker boldly declared blacks could not hope to escape the evil of racism by migrating North.

"It was a mistake for blacks to leave the South, since prejudice was national and not sectional," he said.

During a speech the same year at New York's Carnegie Hall, the minister outlined the state of African-American affairs.

"The Negro is an American citizen," bellowed the minister to an audience of 8,000. "The amendment to the Constitution did not make us men; God made us men before man made us citizens!"

Such radical turn-of-the century views conflicted with the cautious approach prescribed by the more conservative Booker T. Washington.

Yet Dr. Walker continued, mingling his message of equality with converting souls to Jesus Christ. According to newspaper accounts of the time, dozens, sometimes hundreds, at a time would heed the call to change their lives in respect of God.

Returning to Augusta in 1901, the minister continued his missionary work of education and compassion, strengthening opportunities for black children and offering a voice for the voiceless.

In 1909, Dr. Walker was asked to introduce President-elect William H. Taft at the YMCA the minister founded on Ninth Street.

Such would become the legend of Dr. Walker before his death at age 63 in 1921. Today, through Tabernacle Baptist Church -- the center of Augusta's fledgling civil rights efforts -- and C.T. Walker Magnet School, that work continues.