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Artist William Walker, who helped paint ‘Wall of Respect,’ dies

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Updated: November 9, 2011 5:13PM



When artist William Walker helped paint the “Wall of Respect” in 1967, black faces were seldom seen in school textbooks, the mainstream media or on the walls of galleries or museums.

But the mural of African-American heroes on the side of a liquor store at 43rd and Langley sparked a people’s art movement that quickly spread across the nation.

One of the fathers of the community mural movement, Mr. Walker, 84, was found dead at his South Side home Monday.

Quiet, soft-spoken and intensely private, Mr. Walker was quick to credit the work of the nearly 20 other artists who climbed the scaffolding to work with him on the Wall of Respect.

The artists had banded together to produce a collaborative work, but the idea for a mural was generally credited as being his.

Depicting 50 African-American political, religious, artistic and sporting icons, including Malcolm X, Cicely Tyson, Miles Davis and W.E.B. DuBois, the wall belonging to an absentee white landlord was painted in consultation with community members after a series of public meetings.

An inscription on the mural stated that it was painted to “Honor our Black Heroes, and to Beautify our Community.”

By the time it was destroyed in a fire in 1971 it had become a focal point for political action and been substantially reworked, a move which caused infighting among the artists and cost Mr. Walker some friends.

He went on to paint two dozen murals across Chicago, of which three remain.

Born in Alabama in 1927, Mr. Walker moved to Chicago in 1938. At Englewood High School he showed an early flair for art, and he was one of only two black artists enrolled in the early 1950s at the Columbus College of Art and Design in Ohio, where he studied while serving with the Army Air Corps.

He toured the South in the years following his graduation, painting nightclubs and barbecue stands.

On his return to Chicago he joined the Organization for Black American Culture, working as a mail sorter and a sign painter to support his art, and becoming a leading figure in the community mural movement.

He co-founded Chicago Mural Group in 1970 and continued painting until 1988, when he completed his final mural, which honored Mayor Harold Washington. One of his masterpieces, “Wall of Daydreaming and Man’s Inhumanity to Man,” was restored in 2003 and can still be seen at 56th and Stony Island. Another, “All of Mankind,” is under threat at Strangers Home Church near Cabrini Green.

“Bill chose to work on the streets, with the people,” said writer Jeff Huebner, who is working on a book about Mr. Walker. “His work commented on the social ills and the prejudice that plagued the urban community, but it never presented a conflict without offering a resolution.”

Muralist Olivia Gude, a professor at the University of Illinois, Chicago, said Mr. Walker remained engaged and opinionated about the mural scene even after he hung up his brushes.

He believed that the mural movement should be multi-racial — an attitude that sometimes irked other black artists who felt white artists could not be trusted, Gude said. But Mr. Walker told her, “They are here pointing their faces to the wall and their backs to the community while they paint: they trust us and we should trust them.”

Gude said, “Any time you see a mural in Chicago, in some ways it’s a tribute to Bill Walker.”



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