Rev. Lucius Walker Jr Fought for Civil Rights

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The pastor and activist began his career in Milwaukee

Lucius Walker Jr.

Long before Lucius Walker Jr. made international headlines - including for humanitarian aid to Cuba and when shot by U.S.-backed contra forces in Nicaragua - he was a minister and civil-rights activist in Milwaukee.

Walker arrived in Milwaukee in the late 1950s while still a theology student, first serving as a youth director for the Milwaukee Christian Center on the south side. Before he was even ordained, he was called to serve by Hulburt Baptist Church, an all-white congregation, also on the south side. He went on to serve as the founding director of Northcott Neighborhood House.

"Lucius was the first African-American professional we know of who was assigned to work on the then-segregated south side of Milwaukee," said activist Art Heitzer, involved with the Wisconsin Coalition to Normalize Relations with Cuba.

Walker was found dead Wednesday at his home in Demarest, N.J., likely after suffering a heart attack in his sleep. He was 80.

He was born in Roselle, N.J., earning his master of divinity degree from Andover Newton Theological School. While in Milwaukee, he earned a master's degree in social work from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

In his calm, steadfast way, Walker refused to walk away when he witnessed discrimination. When he took a group of boys to a local roller rink in the 1950s - and the white teens were allowed to enter but he wasn't - he filed a civil rights complaint.

When Walker witnessed an off-duty officer making an arrest in 1967 - and the situation became heated - he refused to move along as ordered. Instead, he was among those arrested and fought the charges.

Hundreds of local priests, ministers and nuns packed the courtroom in his support. His character witnesses included former Milwaukee Mayor Frank Zeidler and E. Michael McCann, then an assistant district attorney. Walker later won on appeal.

In 1967, he also accepted a new position in New York. Walker was named founding director of the Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization, an ecumenical group that works for peace and social justice.

"He was a gentle storm," said Thomas E. Smith, a Pittsburgh minister and board chairman of IFCO.

"He went about in his quiet methodical way, not raising his voice but making his point," Smith said. "He fought calmly and courageously. He deplored violence, and he always thought there was a peaceful way to deal with things."

In 1988, Walker was leading a humanitarian mission in Nicaragua when their Mission of Peace passenger boat was fired on by contra rebels. Two people were killed. Walker was one of dozens of people wounded in the attack.

"Shots were whizzing over our heads," he told the Milwaukee Sentinel. "I saw women and children hit by bullets. I think the bullet that went through my rear end also struck the shoulder of a woman standing near me. . . .  Blood was all over the place . . . people were screaming and bullets were ricocheting every which way."

His first thought after the attack was that "this is occurring because of . . . Reagan. He's sending arms over to these guys (the contras) and training them. I realized I was being attacked and facing death at the hands of my own government."

The attack inspired Walker to found Pastors for Peace as an IFCO project. The group continues to provide humanitarian aid to Central America and even assisted in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

In 1992, Walker led the first of 21 "Friendshipment" caravans of medical supplies and other humanitarian aid to Cuba. He refused to seek official permission, instead sending aid through other countries, including Canada and Mexico.

When humanitarian aid was blocked, Walker resorted to long hunger strikes until the goods moved again.

Walker was mourned in Cuba media this week.

"Cubans, in gratitude, have to say that we don't want to think of a world without Lucius Walker," wrote the Communist Party daily Granma.

"He's one of the most respected American people, if not the most respected, in Cuba," Heitzer said.

He led his last mission to Cuba in July, again meeting with former President Fidel Castro. Walker still served as pastor of Salvation Baptist Church of New York.

Walker believed that for many in both the U.S. and poorer countries, things were not better.

"Let us not buy into the notion that the civil-rights goal has been achieved," Walker said in 1993. "It has not. We should not think that because we have a holiday for Martin Luther King, we have made it. That is a token."

Funeral services will be held Friday in New York. Details are available at www.ifconews.org/.