For today’s Thoughtful Thursday we celebrate the lives of three men who passed away this week: artist Jack Whitten, pastor and civil rights leader Rev. Wyatt T. Walker, and musician Hugh Masekela. Great men with noble spirits all.
Jack Whitten, born in 1939, was a pioneering abstract artist. Born in Bessemer, Alabama, he attended Tuskegee Institute and Southern University and was involved in civil rights movements in Alabama and Louisiana. He soon grew frustrated with the pace of social change in the south and moved north to New York City. He graduated from Cooper Union in 1964 with a degree in fine arts, and remained in New York as a working artist. Whitten’s innovative approach to the process of painting (using a variety of techniques and objects to apply paint to canvas) created beautiful abstract works that have been exhibited in the Whitney Museum, the Studio Museum in Harlem, the New Museum, and many others. Whitten received the National Medal of Arts in 2016 from President Obama.
Rev. Wyatt T. Walker was born in 1928 in Massachusetts, was raised in New Jersey and received his college education at Virginia Union University in Richmond, Virginia. After completing graduate studies at Virginia Union, Walker joined the fledgling Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1961 and served until 1964 as its executive director and, unofficially, as Dr. Martin Luther King’s right-hand man. Walker organized many of the most influential civil rights protest marches and his organizational and strategic work for the SCLC has been heralded as the basis for much of its success. Dr. Walker helped circulate King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” and helped organize the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which culminated with Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Dr. Walker worked for the S.C.L.C. in Atlanta for four years before moving to Harlem, in 1965, when he became pulpit minister at the Abyssinian Baptist Church. Two years later, he became pastor and chief executive of the Canaan Baptist Church of Christ, where he stayed until his retirement in 2004. While at the helm of New Canaan he spent decades focusing on improving the Harlem community. The many projects he successfully spearheaded included developing affordable housing, opening a charter school, and fighting drug trafficking and drug addiction in Harlem.
Hugh Masekela, born in 1939 in Witbank, South Africa, was a trumpeter, singer and activist whose music became symbolic of the country’s anti-apartheid movement. When Masekela was 12, he entered St. Peter’s Secondary School, a boarding school in Rosettenville, close to Johannesburg. There he was encouraged to pursue his passion for music, especially the trumpet, and began to perform publicly. After the Sharpeville massacre in March 1960, in which 69 protesters were killed by police officers in a township outside Johannesburg, the government banned public gatherings of more than 10 black people. Masekela chose to leave the country. He studied the trumpet in London briefly before moving to New York City for further study and to perform. Over the years he played primarily in jazz circles and has been known as “the father of South African jazz”. He had a few hits on the Billboard Chart including the 1968 song “Grazing in the Grass”, but was better known for his jazz work and his protest songs which became anthems for the South African anti apartheid movement. He was briefly married to the singer Miriam Makeba, and they continued to collaborate musically long after their divorce. He returned to South Africa in the 1990’s and continued his music career, which included opening a music school and performing and recording extensively with other South African bands.