New York Times
September 11, 2010
Lucius Walker, Baptist Pastor for Peace, Dies at 80
By DOUGLAS MARTIN
The Rev. Lucius Walker, a Baptist minister who gained national attention with
calls for reparations for the descendants of slaves and with repeated violations
of the United States embargo of Cuba through caravans of humanitarian aid, died
on Tuesday at his home in Demarest, N.J. He was 80.
The cause was a heart attack, his daughter Gail Walker said.
Mr. Walker’s life was transformed on Aug. 2, 1988, as he led a delegation on a
fact-finding trip to Nicaragua, where rebels were battling the American-backed
government. Their riverboat was attacked by government soldiers, and Mr. Walker
was one of 29 wounded. Two were killed.
Mr. Walker’s first thought, he said, was that he was hit by a bullet paid for by
his own country. He called his second thought a prophetic vision: he would form
an organization of pastors to fight, or at least clean up after, what he called
That organization,Pastors for Peace, has now sent hundreds of tons of aid,
including medical gear and roofing material, to Latin American countries. Of its
40 missions so far, 21 have been to Cuba, which under a 1963 law is off-limits
to American trade.
“The Bible says feed the hungry, clothe the poor,” Mr. Walker said in an
interview with The Washington Post in 1996. “It doesn’t say to starve the
Mr. Walker helped form a national committee in 2000 to work to return the
6-year-old Elián González to his father in Cuba in the face of strong opposition
from the child’s Miami-based relatives as well as Cuban-American and
conservative groups. (The child was returned to Cuba.) He also arranged meetings
for Fidel Castro when Mr. Castro visited New York, as well as trips to Cuba for
politicians and religious leaders.
In 1999, he led the first American delegation to Peru to meet with Lori
Berenson, an American who had been convicted of treason there in 1996 for
planning terrorist acts.
Mr. Walker relished confrontation. In 1993, The Dallas Morning News quoted a
customs official as offering to handle all the paperwork for Mr. Walker to
obtain a license for a shipment of humanitarian aid to Cuba. But rather than
allow the operation to be legal, Mr. Walker refused the license in favor of
disobeying a law that he saw as unjust. He led a 23-day hunger strike instead,
and in the end the shipment went through, just as the other 20 caravans to Cuba
did — through Mexico or Canada after a tour of American cities to rally support.
Ross Douthat, writing in National Review in 2001, dismissed Mr. Walker and his
organization as “a well-established cog in the left-of-left political machine.”
(Mr. Douthat is now a columnist for The New York Times.)
Mr. Walker had perhaps even more influence in the 1960s, when he was executive
director of the Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization. Its
purpose was to link mainstream Protestant, Catholic and Jewish denominations and
congregations to community organizers in troubled areas.
“It’s a travesty how much churches have said about social justice and how little
they have done,” Mr. Walker told The Times in 1969.
He pushed the organization to support forcing religious groups to pay at least
$500 million to blacks as reparations for their ancestors’ enslavement — a
position that caused the American Jewish Committee to leave the foundation.
Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum, who had been the foundation’s president, cited “the
incapacity of the foundation to take a clear-cut position on the revolutionary
ideology and racist rhetoric” of the document demanding reparations.
Lucius Walker was born on Aug. 3, 1930, in Roselle, N.J., to a mason and a
homemaker who had 10 children. As a teenager, he won recognition as an
accomplished preacher at Pentecostal revival meetings. After graduating from
Shaw University, a historically black institution in Raleigh, N.C., where he
majored in English, he decided to pursue his “love affair with the teachings of
Jesus” and earned a divinity degree from Andover Newton Theological School in
Massachusetts. He earned a master’s degree in social work from the University of
Wisconsin and was ordained in 1958.
In 1973, Mr. Walker became associate general secretary of the National Council
of Churches but was later fired for giving too much money to community
organizers, the council said. In 1978 Mr. Walker returned to the interreligious
foundation. Six years later he founded the Salvation Baptist Church in the Fort
Greene section of Brooklyn.
Mr. Walker’s activities included forming an umbrella group of civil rights
organizations to fight the Ku Klux Klan and another to help prisoners who had
been accused of political crimes to obtain bail bonds.
Mr. Walker’s wife, the former Mary Johnson, died in 2008. In addition to his
daughter Gail, he is survived by two other daughters, Donna and Edith; two sons,
Lucius III and Richard; a brother, William; a sister, Lottie Bethea; and three
Mr. Walker last visited Cuba in July, when, as he had done on many occasions, he
met with Mr. Castro. In announcing his death, Granma, the Communist Party
newspaper in Cuba, said Cubans “don’t want to even think of a world without