William Franklin “Bill” Walker was born in Pendleton, Indiana, in 1896. The grandson of slaves who had escaped to the North on the Underground Railroad, he was the first Black graduate of Pendleton High School. A well-rounded student, he lettered in sports, was a member of the glee club and acted in high school productions.
As a young man Walker joined the Army and served in France during World War I. After spending time leading a traveling orchestra, he made his Broadway debut in 1927 playing a witch doctor in the Oscar Hammerstein musical Golden Dawn. His first film appearance came in 1946 in The Killers starring Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner. As was too often common for Black actors at the time, Walker’s role went uncredited. By the late 1940s his acting career had begun to take off, but he was frequently cast as a porter, prisoner or butler.
In Hollywood, he joined the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), where, in 1951, he was elected as a member of its Board of Directors. He served alongside Ronald Reagan who was the SAG president at the time. Walker used his position to advocate for Black actors. In 1952, he appeared in the film Wait Till the Sun Shines, Nellie, playing Trooper Robert Waverly Ferris. The film was based on the novel I Hear Them Sing by Ferdinand Reyher.
Walker was unafraid to use his voice and influence to lobby the film and television industry. In 1953 he addressed the Screen Producers Guild, on behalf of the Screen Actors Guild. He pointed out that there were sixteen million potential Black movie goers who wanted to see well developed Black characters on screen. He urged producers to consider the role Blacks play in American history and asked for proper portrayal of those roles on film.
In a speech about Black history, Walker noted that movies needed to reflect the reality of Black lives and that adding a single token Black role to a movie was insufficient. When cast as a blacksmith in a Western film, Walker said to the director, “Tell me, who am I supposed to be sleeping with in this town?” Abashed, the director quickly hired some Black women as extras to appear as townspeople on the set.
In 1962 Walker was cast for his biggest role, Reverend Sykes, in the acclaimed film To Kill a Mockingbird. Gregory Peck, who played the lead role in the film, acknowledged Walker’s contributions to the movie as he accepted the Academy Award for Best Actor. During that same period, Walker appeared on the television series Dr. Kildare.
Walker wanted to see Black actors performing in more diversified roles, so he was pleased to be cast as an American diplomat in the 1966 film Our Man Flint. The spy movie parodied the James Bond film series and was well received by critics.
Walker’s role in the entertainment industry expanded as the years passed. He became a director and producer and continued working into his 80s. He also continued his activism, lobbying for the teaching of Black history from elementary school through college. He felt it was critical to include what he described as “the inventiveness and achievements of Black Americans” in curriculums at all levels. In the same vein, he decried injustice, including the exploitative practices of funeral directors preying on bereaved Black families. He had personal experiences helping families of deceased Black actors short on funds for expensive funeral services.
In 1980 a small sampling of Walker’s papers was donated to the American Heritage Center. They include photographs, speeches, scripts and two original screenplays written by Walker. Walker died in 1992, but his legacy lives on in an extensive filmography with performances in more than 100 films and television shows.
Post contributed by AHC Writer Kathryn Billington.