Recently I did some online research about Critical Race Theory because it’s been in the news so much. In particular, I wanted to know what Martin Luther King Jr. might think about this theoretical race-based approach to human society. Here’s what I discovered.
For those who either don’t remember or have never heard of Wyatt Tee Walker (1929–2018), he was one of King’s closest friends and advisors throughout the 1960s until his death in 1968. He served as King’s chief of staff in the early 60s and compiled and named the famous “Letter From Birmingham Jail.” He helped organize the “I Have a Dream” March on Washington, D.C., in 1963; was with King for that pivotal event; and was with him for the subsequent Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in 1964. King himself described Walker as “one of the keenest minds of the nonviolent revolution,” and Ebony Magazine once called him “The Man Behind Martin Luther King.”
Walker’s central role in the civil rights movement is important because in 2015, together with writer Steve Klinsky, Walker wrote an essay that directly addressed the controversial topic of CRT. In that essay Walker 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. The answer is to go deeper than race... to teach ourselves to comprehend each person, not as a symbol of a group, but as a unique and special individual within a common context of shared humanity.” Close friend and co-author Steve Klinsky was concerned about publishing these statements, fearing it would turn other civil rights leaders against Walker. But Walker’s conviction about CRT was unwavering. He told his friend to publish the essay without modification.
In October 2020 Klinsky recalled his work with Walker in 2015, stating unequivocally that CRT is directly opposed to the central concept of King’s vision: “As Dr. Walker tried to make clear, thinking in terms of blocs of people, rather than of people as individuals, leads to a whole set of insidious results. How can two people bind together in friendship if they are members of power blocs that are presumed to be inherently opposed? [ ... ] The saddest thing is to see well-intentioned people, trying to achieve Martin Luther King’s dream by employing CRT methods that are the opposite of King’s dream.”
Practically every American knows the core of Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream for human society. He wanted people to be seen as unique individuals within one human family, and to be judged by the content of their character. That was it. Simple and profound. As someone who embraces King’s vision, I find it significant that his chief of staff Wyatt Tee Walker opposed theoretical classifications for people based on race, believing them to be contrary and even harmful to King’s vision.