It seems fitting that Bill Walker wants to meet on the corner of Woodlawn and Hyde Park Boulevard. The street has always been his workplace, and that’s where you most easily picture him—the father of the community mural movement, capturing, as he once wrote, the “human side of street life in the city.”
Photographs and films of Walker from the 60s and 70s always show him on the street, on sidewalks and in parking lots, climbing scaffolds to fill brick walls and viaducts with spirited reflections on the urban black experience. In three decades of painting murals in Chicago’s neighborhoods, he became an authority on the culture of poverty, racism, and the simple healing effects of goodwill. The street was both Walker’s milieu and his canvas.
That’s why it’s a bit disconcerting to see him drive up in a car, much less a Cadillac Seville. He looks comfortably middle-class, almost squirish, not the “prophet in pigment” I’d come to expect. But after decades of painting socially concerned murals—of giving art to the people—Walker should be allowed a luxury or two. After all, he has long forgone luxuries in pursuit of a vision. Thirty years ago this week, he helped launch an art revolution.
In August 1967, during the rising tide of black consciousness, Walker and other African-American artists created the Wall of Respect—a landmark mural that galvanized a south-side neighborhood and sparked a “people’s art” movement that quickly spread to other cities. Soon public murals were embraced in America as socially relevant art.
Though it’s been nine years since he painted his last outdoor mural—a tribute to Harold Washington completed shortly after the mayor’s death—the 70-year-old Alabama native is still reasonably active and in good health. Yet, for a public artist, he’s always kept a fairly low profile. He remains an inspiration to other muralists, but few current practitioners have ever met him or even know what he looks like.
My own dealings with Walker were brief and sporadic. I’d occasionally talk to him on the phone, but it was hard to catch him—you had to keep calling. He didn’t have an answering machine, and he kept late hours. He enjoyed being out of the spotlight and was protective of his privacy—a reticence that seemed at odds with his work. Someone once told me I might catch him at the Dirksen Federal Building, where he spent a lot of time observing organized-crime and gang-related trials.
But this summer Walker had been easier to reach. His 90-year-old mother was ill in a Hyde Park hospital. When he wasn’t at her bedside, he was keeping close to the phone, just in case. After a few late-night conversations, he finally agreed to leave his Bronzeville apartment for a couple hours. He wanted to show me something that few people knew about—a mural he painted in the vestibule of an apartment building in 1959 or ’60. At that time he was working as an interior decorator. Though the work wouldn’t have the scale, compositional complexity, or probing social conscience of his 70s masterworks, I still expected to find something recognizable, some element that would be amplified in his later murals, some incipient sign of the greatness to come.
Doing murals is hard work, Walker says. All those years of clambering up and down scaffolds, working mostly alone but sometimes with assistants and children, has left him fit and trim. Yet the work had its downside: decades of cleaning paint from his face with solvents had clogged his pores and changed his complexion. For a while, Walker says, he thought he had cancer. But he’s been seeing a dermatologist twice a week for the last 11 years; facial creams and injections have pretty much cleared up the problem.
Walker wears a paper cap, a work shirt, and a pair of paint-splattered pants. He explains that he’s been working in somebody’s house. “I still occasionally might do a little decoration thing,” he says in his sonorous voice. “With my exposure to interior design, I learned how to hustle for sign-painting and decoration jobs. People hired me to help decorate their apartments. Sometimes I’d do a little decorative mural.”
Walker rounds the block and turns onto East Madison Park Avenue, a leafy street lined with graceful redbrick apartment buildings. He explains that he painted the indoor mural for a woman who still lives in the building, now all condominiums. “I decorated her apartment and then threw in the mural for free.”
He parks the car and walks to the front door. We peer through the window, but there’s no picture on the vestibule walls. “They must’ve painted over it,” he says. Suddenly he adds, “Wait a minute.” He steps over to the next building and looks inside. “Here it is,” he says, pointing to the east side of the hallway.
The mural’s a skillful but typically pretty Paris street scene: buildings and cafes and trees and people. Faded and peeling, it’s the kind of thing you might pass countless times on your way upstairs and never think twice about, so unobtrusively does it blend into its surroundings. There are probably thousands of wall paintings like this in apartment buildings all across America. “That’s nice,” I say, which is true. It’s still a Walker. But looking at the mural, it’s hard to believe that some art historians would compare him to Diego Rivera.
“Many people don’t even know I’ve painted murals,” says Walker. “I never talk about these kinds of things. But I like it that way. I like the anonymity. I like to compartmentalize my life. It’s good to be invisible, because then I can put myself outside a situation and try to understand the reasons why even the most racist of bigots—black or white—do things, even though they can’t justify them. It enables me to not have bitterness and to keep my sanity.”
Wall of Respect, which honored African-American heroes, is widely considered to be one of the most significant, if unsung, artistic events of the turbulent 60s. The mural was created by a cadre of black artists in the summer of 1967 on the side of a dilapidated two-story building at the southeast corner of 43rd and Langley. The work’s social and racial consciousness helped change the face of American art—and helped change lives.
Spurred by civil rights struggles and the emergence of black power politics (the Black Panther Party had been founded the previous year), the wall not only marked the beginning of the contemporary mural movement—it pioneered the course of African-American art, giving rise to an Afrocentric style. The mural became, in the words of Jeff Donaldson, one of the wall’s creators and now an art professor and dean at Howard University, “an instantaneous shrine to Black creativity, a rallying point for revolutionary rhetoric and calls to action, and a national symbol of the heroic Black struggle for liberation in America.”
The idea for a mural originated with Walker, but the work was not the vision of a single individual: it was the result of a collective act, paid for out of the pockets of 20-odd artists, men and women, most of them members of the “visual art workshop” of the Organization for Black American Culture. OBAC—pronounced like obasi, the Yoruba word for “chieftain”—had been cofounded in the spring of 1967 by Donaldson, then a teacher at Northeastern Illinois University and a PhD candidate at Northwestern, along with University of Chicago sociologist Gerald McWorter and Negro Digest editor Hoyt Fuller. The three decided to form a collective built around individual workshops dedicated to visual art, music, writing, dance, and theater. The group would go on to forge alliances with other black arts organizations, including Kuumba Theater and the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (OBAC survived as a poetry collective through the late 80s).
A mural about the black American experience was not exactly a novelty. Murals had been executed for universities, libraries, and other public buildings during and after the New Deal era by such black artists as Aaron Douglas, Hale Woodruff, Charles Alston, Charles White, Jacob Lawrence, John Biggers, and Samella Lewis. But these works were indoor commissions done by individual artists. Wall of Respect was the first outdoor mural done for the community—for everyone. Like most revolutions, its creation was rooted in a subversive notion: the right of people to use art publicly to portray themselves and to assert pride in their heritage. “This Wall,” stated its inscription, “was created to Honor our Black Heroes, and to Beautify our Community.”
The original mural contained more than 50 portraits—of statesmen, athletes, musicians, actors, writers, and religious leaders. Subjects ranged from Miles Davis to Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X to Muddy Waters, W.E.B. DuBois to Dick Gregory, Billie Holiday to Cicely Tyson. The artists either painted directly on the brick or on mounted panels; photographs were later added to the “street gallery,” and poems were inscribed among the portraits.
The wall quickly became a symbol of pride in the neighborhood, indeed, throughout Chicago’s black community; African-Americans were rarely pictured in schoolbooks, in the media, or in museums and galleries. The mural informed and inspired: it served as a teaching medium and a gathering place. Its creation was celebrated with a monthlong street festival—musicians jammed, actors performed, and poets recited. An undeclared landmark, the mural also became a tourist attraction, every day drawing up to a few hundred curious visitors who discussed the work with the artists. Street gangs supported the project, and the area became neutral turf. The mural drew rallies in support of civil rights and in opposition to urban renewal. According to the artists, it also attracted the attention of undercover police and FBI agents.
The wall was dedicated on August 27, 12 days after the Picasso was unveiled in the Civic Center Plaza. Poet Gwendolyn Brooks (who was pictured on the wall) and OBAC member Don L. Lee (now Haki Madhubuti, publisher of Third World Press) recited special tributes to the mural.
Wall of Respect may now be gone—the building was targeted for urban renewal and razed following a suspicious fire in 1971—but its legacy remains intact. Pieces of the artwork even survive. After the fire, several panels were rescued; one, Myrna Weaver’s painting of Muhammad Ali, was shown in the Museum of Contemporary Art’s recent exhibit “Art in Chicago 1945-1995.”
“I don’t think we fully realized the impact it would make,” says Walker. “It was a very challenging period, and I learned a great deal about making a visual expression in relation to people. The idea was that we wanted to make a statement relative to the spirit of giving. It was a community of drugs, corruption, and crime, and, with the spirit of giving unselfishly, we hoped to have some influence on youngsters and parents. The white community had no idea what it meant to our community—it focused on heroes who had stood in the face of controversy. The community as a whole could relate to that. I had a great, great feeling—I remember people having great feelings about the wall. I saw women weep because of pride. And there were so many people visiting, thousands and thousands of people visiting, all these celebrities, black and white, would visit the wall all hours of the morning. It was truly a gift.”
Walker has never claimed credit for the Wall of Respect, and he’s uncomfortable with the long-held notion that he single-handedly started the community mural movement. He’s always been quick to acknowledge and praise the contributions of other artists. Sylvia Abernathy, for instance, came up with the plan for individual segments, which fit the building’s architecture. Each of the artists had been assigned a portion of the wall, and figures were grouped according to their fields. Walker painted the religious leaders section, initially including portraits of Nat Turner and Elijah Muhammad.
But Walker is still considered by many to be the artwork’s instigator. He was the only one of the group who had been trained as a muralist. He already knew people in the neighborhood and was instrumental in securing permission to work on the wall, gaining the support of merchants, community leaders, and street gangs.
Yet the making of the wall has a contentious story that would not begin to emerge until years later. The artists weren’t as united as most historians seem to think. Toward the end of the project, differences arose among group members over issues of credit, publicity, and community commitment. Later Walker, Weaver, and artists not in the original group whitewashed some sections—including portraits they hadn’t done—and painted new ones, much to the chagrin of participants who thought that the artwork’s collective spirit had been violated. Most photos show later versions of the mural, not the original OBAC work. Weeks after the original mural was completed, the OBAC visual art workshop dispersed; some of its members formed AfriCobra (the African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists), an influential art collective that continues to exhibit today. While Walker would go on to be embraced by community muralists across the nation as the movement’s founder, others involved in the original Wall of Respect have stated in articles and essays that his role was less heroic and less central than has been commonly believed.
But whatever disputes surround its creation, the mural remains a defining cultural landmark, an epochal art event, and a cause for continual celebration. Whoever launched the mural movement, it’s safe to say that it couldn’t have continued without Walker.
“Bill hasn’t been heralded enough for what he’s inspired and given great momentum to,” says art historian Victor Sorell, an assistant dean at Chicago State University. “Other muralists acknowledge his influence by the sheer strength of his character, but most histories of African-American art have given him short shrift. Bill has remained relatively anonymous.”
Few have done as much as Sorell to keep Walker in the public eye. He has written extensively on Walker’s work and has curated the exhibit “Images of Conscience: The Art of Bill Walker,” a touring exhibit of paintings and drawings. In 1991 he conducted an interview with Walker for the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art.
Sorell thinks Walker’s humility has contributed to his obscurity. He recalls accepting the 1986 City Brightener Award on Walker’s behalf because the artist was reluctant to attend the ceremony; instead, it was Sorell who shook the hand of Harold Washington. “Bill’s a very poor politician, but that’s to pay him a compliment,” says Sorell. “He’s very shy, very modest. He hasn’t been about building his own reputation or carving a place for himself in the history of muralism. He’s never amassed any amount of money, and he is totally committed to surviving on his wits.”
Margaret Burroughs met Walker while he was working on the Wall of Respect in 1967. She says the “outdoor museum encouraged development and interest” in the DuSable Museum of African American History, which she cofounded six years earlier in her home near 38th and Michigan. In 1980, nearly a decade after the museum relocated to more spacious quarters in Washington Park, Walker moved into a third-floor apartment in Burroughs’s building, where he continues to live. He painted murals in her home several years ago.
“Bill makes his work available to working people, common people, rather than trying to get it into museums,” she says. “Besides being a fine artist, he’s a fine human being, unlike some fine artists, who are rats. He’s very principled, very serious about his work. I can’t think of enough superlatives, greater and greater words, to say about this person. He’s been a wonderful friend to me, a friend all these years.”
Jim Prigoff, a Sacramento-based mural documentarian, calls Walker “my Diego Rivera.” A former Chicago resident, Prigoff has cowritten and photographed three books on mural art in the U.S., including a soon-to-be-published history of African-American murals. “He is the premier giant in the history of American street murals. Nobody has the status of Walker. . . . He painted the struggle between good and evil. . . . There’s a timelessness to the kind of work he did. These were the stories of truth tellers.”
Haki Madhubuti agrees. By “taking black art public,” he says, Walker “inspired an entire generation of artists, and he did it in a selfless way.”
An only child, Walker was born in 1927 in Birmingham, Alabama. He grew up in Alley B, a desperately poor ghetto of “bleak little shacks” with outhouses. He never knew his father, who left home shortly after he was born. His mother, Millie Lee, migrated to Chicago “to find a better life” when he was two years old; he was raised mainly by his grandmother, Lucy Arnold, who took him to a Methodist church every Sunday.
“She was a very strong lady, a little mulatto woman,” says Walker. “Today she’d be called multicultural. She saw the world differently because of her mixed heritage. She saw the prejudice and cruelty on both sides of the situation because at that time mulattoes weren’t accepted by blacks or whites. But her view of life was different because she was not bitter. She judged people by their deeds and actions and understood that people were people. One of the things she discouraged was hatred, not to judge people by their color. I’m so grateful she instilled that in me. She taught me things that proved to be my great strengths—how to speak up for people, how to be broad in my understanding, and, above all, not to have any hatred.”
In 1938 Walker was sent north to join his mother, a seamstress and hairdresser, and they lived in a variety of places in the Washington Park neighborhood. In 1940 his mother married a truck driver named James Jones, whom Walker describes as a “fine, stately gentleman.” Walker attended Betsy Ross and Sexton elementary schools, then Englewood High School. Though he recalls “drawing and drawing all the time” as a kid, he didn’t draw much after moving to Chicago because, he says, he was too busy adjusting to life in a strange new city.
Drafted during World War II, Walker later reenlisted so he could get four years of college tuition under the GI Bill. He was a mail clerk and then an MP with the 99th Pursuit Squadron, the all-black command under which, he says, the famed Tuskegee Airmen had fought.
While still in the military, Walker painted his first murals in 1947. He was stationed near Columbus, Ohio, and through friends there he met noted muralist and art historian Samella Lewis. Walker often stayed with Lewis’s family and assisted her on a few commissions. Discharged in 1949, Walker enrolled in the Columbus Gallery School of Arts (now the Columbus College of Art and Design), where Lewis taught. Halfway through college, he switched majors, from commercial to fine arts, also crediting instructor Joseph Canzani with encouraging his interest in mural painting. In 1952, Walker won the school’s 47th annual group exhibition “best of show” award–the first African-American to do so.
Walker studied early Renaissance fresco painters such as Masaccio, da Vinci, and Michelangelo, but he couldn’t find anything on the Mexican muralists in the school’s library because, he thinks, “their political views were not very popular.” Walker says it wasn’t until around 1950 that he came across examples of Rivera’s murals in a news magazine. He later studied the works of los tres grandes—Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and Jose Clemente Orozco—on his own.
Not being exposed to the Mexican muralists in school, says Walker, was “in a way great, and in a way not so great. It would’ve been easy to be captured by them.” While studying their art might have helped him overcome his early design problems, he eventually figured things out for himself. “Gradually, I developed some stuff on my own, with their limited influence,” he says. “I wasn’t totally relying on them, but it was an advantage to have my own individuality.” What did impress Walker was the way the Mexican muralists used architectural space—and he discovered how to incorporate structural elements into his compositions. Walker cites Jacob Lawrence, Charles White, and Chicago painter William McBride as other important influences.
After graduating in 1954, Walker headed to Nashville, where he painted a mural of the garden of Gethsemane in a Baptist church. Then he went to Memphis, where he met Cliff Miller, a cab-fleet and nightclub owner. Miller helped Walker land a job painting a mural of a street scene in the local Elks Club. Then he commissioned Walker to do murals for his Flamingo Club, a joint near Beale Street. Walker painted three works—Jamming the Blues, Street Scene, and Alley B. (None of the works in Nashville and Memphis still exist.) Needing a picture from which to paint a proposed plantation scene, Walker and Miller’s nephew Hardy, a photographer with Hue magazine, drove to an Arkansas cotton field. It was there that the 27-year-old artist had an epiphany.
As Walker told Margaret Burroughs in an interview for the catalog accompanying his 1984 exhibition of paintings and drawings: “We went out into the fields where the people—men, women, and children—were chopping cotton. I remember that a toilworn female cotton chopper stopped and asked us: ‘Why y’all wanna take us’s picture? We is human too.’ That question brought tears to my eyes, and I realized that seeing those people was like pulling back the curtain on 200 years of history, that they too needed art and should not be excluded. Then and there, I decided to dedicate my work to speaking for them and their cause, and all others like them.”
Realizing he could’ve easily been among those cotton choppers, Walker couldn’t bring himself to paint the plantation scene in the Flamingo Club; he says he never again thought about seeking fame and fortune as an artist. Instead, in 1955 he returned to Chicago and worked as a decorative painter for a variety of north-side interior design firms. “It was good exposure,” says Walker. “I learned a lot about decorative art, a more commercial type of art, that interior designers would purchase. It was art that would fit in with curtains and color schemes, things like that. Clients would order it from a book.”
With his interior design experience, Walker struck out on his own in the late 50s. Sometimes, as in the case of the apartment building on East Madison Park Avenue, he’d paint a little mural at no extra cost—he says it was his way of exercising his painterly skills and “giving back.” At that time Walker lived near 61st and Vernon in a house that had belonged to his mother. He married Lucille Cunningham in 1959 and had a daughter, Skyla, now a nurse in Chicago. (He was divorced 11 years later, saying, “I’m never gonna take that trip again.”)
All along, says Walker, “the idea of doing a wall was gradually forming” in his mind, though he wasn’t exactly sure what kind of mural he wanted to do. In the mid-60s he took a job as a mail sorter in the downtown post office. Around that same time, Walker says, he asked a writer and activist named Al Saladine to contribute text to a mural; Saladine, who lived near 43rd and Langley—an area where Walker had worked as a sign painter—agreed. Walker also asked fellow mail sorter Mitchell Caton—later, a central figure in the community mural movement—if he wanted to be involved, and Caton agreed. But when Saladine dropped out, Walker says, the plan was scrapped.
Then in the spring of 1967, Walker got a call from a friend, photographer Billy Abernathy, who told him that a group of artists were meeting to possibly form an organization. He urged Walker to attend.
No one asked for the “Wall of Respect.” It just had to be painted. It made a direct statement to the Black community and the statement came directly out of the community through its artists. —Harold Haydon, Chicago Sun-Times, December 13, 1970
The Organization of Black American Culture was formed in May 1967 “to provide,” according to its statement of purpose, “a new context for the Black Artist in which he can work out his problems and pursue his aims unhampered and uninhibited by the prejudices and dictates of the ‘mainstream.'” The group’s visual art workshop first met in mid-June. In later meetings, held at various members’ studios, the artists discussed aesthetics and philosophy and brought in samples of their work. “I realized I had much in common with these people,” says Walker. “They were wonderful and talented people.”
By July, the 14 core members—painters, printmakers, and photographers, most of them art students or teachers—decided to pursue a group project. Walker says at one point he told the members that he’d planned to paint a mural on a wall at 43rd and Langley. The group, he says, was “very interested,” and that same night they visited the site.
Jeff Donaldson recalls the mural’s genesis differently. He says that Clarence Jacobs, an occasional workshop visitor, first proposed doing an outdoor wall, a claim he repeated in an essay in the catalog for “The People’s Art: Black Murals, 1967-1978,” an exhibit at Philadelphia’s African American Historical and Cultural Museum in 1986. Donaldson recalls that Walker’s initial plan for the mural, “a series of unrelated individual images,” clashed with OBAC’s plan for a collective, unified statement; the artwork was meant to belong to the community, not to its individual artists. “[Walker] said the wall was available to anybody else who wanted to work on it,” says Donaldson.
The group then decided on the theme of “black heroes,” with a list of figures modified and approved by neighborhood residents. Walker says that even if he had painted his own mural it wouldn’t have been as successful as OBAC’s.
“My individual vision wouldn’t have focused on heroes,” he explains. “It would’ve focused on conditions in the community. It would’ve been pessimistic. Focusing on heroes was far more acceptable; my idea wouldn’t have been acceptable. It became more acceptable after the riots, but prior to that it would’ve been a turnoff.”
Walker worked his neighborhood connections. The 43rd Street Community Organization gave the group permission to work on the wall, as did the building’s business owners. Walker recalls a “Mr. Baker,” who ran the corner food and liquor store, and Johnny Ray, who repaired TVs and radios in a shop on Langley. The white absentee landlord, however, was not consulted. Neither was the alderman, Ralph Metcalfe; the artists didn’t want to owe anyone favors.
Each of the artists then submitted a design scheme for the wall. Sylvia Abernathy, a student at the Illinois Institute of Technology, presented the best plan. “She was a brilliant designer, in my opinion,” says Walker. “She understood architectural design, and came up with the idea of dividing the wall in seven spaces so that each artist would have his or her own section.” The sections were determined by the building’s doors, moldings, boarded-up windows, and window bays. By August, the group had pooled enough money to rent a scaffold and to buy paint and other supplies. Actual work on the wall began Saturday morning, August 5.
Donaldson and Elliot Hunter collaborated on the jazz section. Wadsworth Jarrell painted the rhythm and blues section. Barbara Jones took theater. Norman Parish treated statesmen and political activists. Edward Christmas did literary figures. Myrna Weaver had sports. Carolyn Lawrence painted dancers on the corner newsstand. Walker had been assigned the section on religious leaders. Billy Abernathy, Roy Lewis, Robert Sengstacke, Darrel Cowherd, and Christmas affixed their photos of notable figures to each section.
Martin Luther King Jr. wasn’t pictured on the wall; instead, people demanded Stokely Carmichael. Carmichael had been a spokesman for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a militant civil rights organization more allied with the black power movement. Along with Carmichael, Parish’s statesmen section included portraits of Malcolm X, H. Rap Brown, Marcus Garvey, Adam Clayton Powell, and Paul Robeson. The composition also contained a photo of Malcolm X by Lewis.
“[King] wasn’t as popular and fully accepted in the community as Stokely, Rap Brown,” explains Walker. “Some of the black aldermen and ministers didn’t agree with King. They opposed his coming here [during the 1966 open housing campaign]. There was a lot of clergy jealousy and vested interests. A lot of aldermen didn’t want him here, didn’t want to rub Daley the wrong way because of patronage jobs and such.”
Walker was in the pro-King contingent. “When it was brought up about people on the wall, [members of the] SNCC said, ‘No Dr. King,’ and I had a choice of saying, ‘The hell with that, forget about it,’ or go on doing the wall. I wasn’t about to get into any confrontation with SNCC. There’ll be plenty of times to get King on walls, I thought, plenty of other times.”
Metcalfe’s mug wasn’t on the wall either. Walker, the neighborhood liaison, had gone to talk to him. “He was upset his picture wasn’t included, and he said as much,” says Walker. “‘I wasn’t on the wall,’ he said. I said, ‘Well, alderman, it’s due to your attitude toward the community. People don’t feel you’re as devoted as they think you should be.’ He was associated with Mayor Daley, though he later stood up as an independent, coming out against police brutality. He was upset, of course. He never did like it, but we nonetheless went ahead.”
The support of local street gangs was also essential for the project’s success, says Walker. The area had been the scene of recent shootouts, but Walker had helped to smooth things over between the rival gangs. P. Stone leaders had met with the artists and offered to help secure materials and to keep an eye on things. Consequently, the artists could leave their paint and scaffold overnight without worrying about them being ripped off. As Walker has said, “If anyone harmed the wall in any way, he would be killed, and that included me.”
Sengstacke, a freelance photographer who was then on the staff of his family’s newspaper, the Chicago Defender, recalls neighborhood kids charging people admission. “If visitors came to see the wall, they’d conduct a tour for a fee,” he says. “They knew all the people on the wall.” But when Sengstacke brought up the idea of producing postcards of the mural and sharing the proceeds with the community, several artists shot down the idea. “They accused me of trying to commercialize it,” he says.
Soon, some artists claim, undercover cops and FBI agents began hanging around the wall. A few of the artists say they received anonymous phone calls and letters accusing them of being spies and traitors. Donaldson recalls receiving a postcard that said: “You have been found guilty by the Black Tribunal. The next time you climb the scaffold you will be dusted.” He later wrote that “dissension was introduced into the Workshop by the forces of the FBI’s . . . COINTELPRO,” or Counter-Intelligence Program, which had been set up to destabilize leftist, antiwar, and black-nationalist groups by sowing distrust in their ranks.
Toward the end of the project, SNCC and the 43rd Street Community Organization called for a civil rights rally. Though denied a police permit, hundreds of people milled around the mural anyway. Walker remembers police—some standing on rooftops with shotguns—ringing the crowd. Kids were crying. The air was thick with tension, a riot ready to explode. “At the least move, there’d be a slaughter,” Walker says. He also recalls being on a scaffold during the demonstration as sign painter Curly Elison calmly lettered the words “Wall of Respect” below the figure of Muhammad Ali.
But all these pressures had started to influence the mural’s character. “We wanted it to be a unifying force in the community,” says Donaldson, “but instead it led to divisiveness in our group.” Donaldson maintains that media exposure and Walker’s status as spokesperson led to the disputes, while Walker contends that the problems arose when OBAC members wanted to leave the community.
“None of us lived there,” says Donaldson, “and we didn’t want to exploit these people, having headlines read that we were lifting up ‘our poor brethren’ by the bootstraps. We found that these people were more aesthetically acute than people in graduate schools. They gave us valuable commentary about the wall because they had to live with it every day. We learned as much from these people as they learned from us. We had a great deal of respect for these people, who endured a lot.”
When the mural began receiving what Donaldson calls “sensationalized” coverage—it was often portrayed, he says, as an amateur artwork done by local untrained artists—OBAC members regrouped and agreed not to talk to reporters, though they did assent to write-ups in Ebony and the Defender.
The OBAC visual art workshop split into two factions: those who left the neighborhood when the mural was completed, and those who decided to stay. Walker and Weaver continued working on the wall with area residents and Eugene Eda, an artist Walker had recruited. “We wanted to keep at least one workshop in the community, but [the others] wanted to move on to greener pastures,” says Walker. “The community needed artists, people they could look to beyond drugs, prostitution, and most other negative things. We wanted artists in the community to help, not abandon the community. Someone, I felt, should be in the community who cared.”
Walker emerged as the mural’s guardian, which didn’t sit well with other artists, who thought no one person or group should speak for the mural. “There were those of us who didn’t want to capitalize on or exploit the wall,” says Donaldson. “Those of us involved on an ideological plane didn’t see it as a stepping-stone to notoriety. [Walker] saw it as a way to escalate his standing in the art community.”
Walker says, “I wasn’t responsible for the media coming to interview me” after the others had left. “I happened to have been the ‘Keeper of the Wall,’ as [Sun-Times art critic] Harold Haydon called me. So naturally they’d come to me. Who else would they go to?”
In his religious leaders section, directly below Parish’s statesmen segment at street level, Walker had painted portraits of Black Muslim leader Elijah Muhammad (titled The Messenger), Nat Turner, and Wyatt Walker, a New York minister and civil rights activist; a photo of Muhammad’s granddaughter by Sengstacke had also been included. But when Elijah Muhammad sent Walker letters threatening to sue over being pictured on the same wall as Malcolm X, Walker erased the section and replaced it with a composition called See, Listen, and Learn, which showed Turner, the slave revolt leader, preaching to a crowd of people. The wall began to change.
What happened next still haunts Walker and Parish, exacerbating differences within OBAC. Parish recalls Walker telling him that his section was not “complete”—that the portrait of Malcolm X, painted on a rough brick recess, needed more work. Parish thought the composition was fine, but says he told Walker, “I’ll go back and do what I can.” When Parish returned on the next Saturday morning, he says he was “shocked” to discover that his entire section had been painted out. Eda, who says the section had already been erased when he came to work on the mural, repainted the political figures in his own style, adding a giant, upraised fist.
“It’s something that won’t go away,” says Parish, an artist and the owner of Parish Gallery in Washington, D.C. “After that section was whitewashed, the wall was never resolved—it never had a life of its own after it happened. I was not against [Walker]; I just didn’t know what was going on. The new section was too dark; it didn’t fit and had no harmony with the rest of the wall. It didn’t have the same appeal. But no matter how it was whitewashed, they can’t paint out what you did.”
Then a student at the School of the Art Institute and a draftsman for a design company, Parish says he was “groomed into being a family man”—married, he had one son with another on the way—and that he “wasn’t really an activist.” He adds, “Walker wanted to be the spokesperson for the wall, [and] the statesmen section was the most powerful part of the whole wall.” In a 1992 Chicago Tribune article written by his son, Norman III, Parish had opined that Walker and the other artists may have believed that he “was not black enough in my thought.”
Walker says the whitewashing wasn’t politically motivated. He explains that he tried to contact Parish and that the remaining group debated whether they should paint out the section without his knowledge. “It was one of the greatest mistakes I’ve ever made, and I’m truly sorry,” says Walker. “I’ve carried that burden all these years. It was not right. To be perfectly honest, and I want to be fair, he had a right to be upset. It was an unpardonable act. There was no justifiable reason to eliminate that section. He really did have a nice section. We should’ve made another space available. It was very important to Parish—it meant being involved in a historical project. It wasn’t like a full-fledged mural—we were still growing and learning. We weren’t Siqueiros, Rivera, or Orozco at that point. It was a nice section, in reality.”
Donaldson isn’t sympathetic. “I have no animosity towards [Walker], but facts are facts. I’m not trying to put him down. But it was a very, very bad thing, given the tenor of the times. Saying he shouldn’t have done it is too late. We were living in perilous times back then. It was very, very dangerous going up on the scaffold.”
“We did a beautiful thing,” says Sengstacke, “but some people got selfish.”
The artists hadn’t planned on putting their names on the wall. But after the white- washing incident, Donaldson says, they returned and affixed their signatures in case Walker or anyone else tried to paint out their sections. After that, Donaldson never went back to look at the mural, saying “its unity had been destroyed.” Designer Sylvia Abernathy didn’t either. “It was ugly,” she said in the Tribune article. “A lot of people don’t realize that the media pictures that they see of the mural is not the original wall.” Donaldson points out that the original mural wasn’t dedicated, which is true. It was the later version with the Walker-Eda additions—not authorized by the whole group—that was dedicated and most often pictured in books, magazines, and newspapers. In later years, Donaldson would claim that OBAC—not Walker—had launched the community mural movement, because it had created the original mural; the group, as it was originally conceived, had nothing to do with the later version. In his 1986 essay, Donaldson stated that Clarence Jacobs—who never worked on the wall—first had the idea of “do[ing] a block like the gang-bangers do,” that is, “an aesthetic extension of the turf-identifying graffiti scrawled on neighborhood buildings.”
“There’s no logic [to the claim] that they’d originated the idea,” says Eda, an art professor at Kennedy-King College and a practicing muralist who now goes by the name Eugene Wade and signs his work “Edaw.” He adds, “Most of the folks involved in OBAC were at the Art Institute, Northwestern. There’s no way they’d come down and establish a rapport with poor blacks in that area. Some of them were frightened. But Bill was there; he used to work in the area. He knew all the folks there and introduced me to people in the community, including gang members. I doubt that any of these superintellectuals could conjure up the idea of doing a mural in the ghetto.”
“I brought the idea,” says Walker. “That is the question you can ask anybody. I brought the idea, and see if anybody denies that.”
Walker has always been reluctant to talk about his differences with OBAC. He’s never had a bad word for anyone, saying only that the mural’s creation brought him both joy and pain. Yet, when reminded of the group’s breakup, Walker gradually grows indignant, his normally soft voice soaring to evangelical heights.
“The problems came when they wanted to leave the wall, leave the community,” he says. “Naturally we’d have differences. They were not in the street, where you could be shot down. They were not there. They didn’t know a goddamn thing about poverty and starvation. We stayed in that community. We were there, man, me and Eda was there, every goddamn day. Me and Eda stood in the face of danger. He was there every day, he wasn’t afraid, talking to the community about man’s inhumanity to man. We saw everything. We were there, sharing the people’s misery and pain. We were there to share their suffering, we were there to share their tears. There wasn’t anything we could do, but we could share. We were there, and that makes a difference. I wouldn’t change it for anything in the world. I paid my dues, my friend. I could’ve lost my goddamn life. I paid my dues. It was real, brother, it was real.”
The OBAC visual art workshop disbanded in September 1967. Sometime in the following year, a publication claimed that Jacobs was the mural’s originator. Walker sought the help of Leon Despres, a lawyer and then Fifth Ward alderman. “It really burned him up,” says Despres. They threatened to file suit—neither can remember the name of the publication—unless the statement was corrected. “We got acknowledgment that [Walker] was the originator, and he was quite well satisfied,” recalls Despres. “It was not just a retraction, but a couple of paragraphs.”
In late 1968, some OBAC artists—Donaldson, Hunter, Jarrell, Jones, and Lawrence—formed the nucleus of AfriCobra. Its far-flung members continue to produce “socially responsible” Afrocentric art. The group is planning a 30th anniversary exhibit next year.
“Some people want to minimize what Bill’s done, I think, because of what they haven’t done,” says Victor Sorell. “Maybe they begrudge him that. They thought he was making big, big bucks off the mural, but that wasn’t the case. He’s been eclipsed by a whole lot of other people, maybe even denigrated, while he’s been relegated to obscurity.”
As news of the Wall of Respect spread, it captured the imagination of artists in Chicago and in other cities. In 1968, a ministers’ organization invited Walker, Eda, Hunter, and Christmas to Detroit, where they executed the Wall of Dignity. Walker and Eda also worked on three other murals there, one in an area devastated by the ’67 riots. That same year, black-pride murals sprang up in Boston, Saint Louis, and Philadelphia; “Walls of Respect” had become the generic name for all these works. Walker says he was out of cash when he finished working in Detroit and had to get a job in a picture-framing shop after returning to Chicago.
In 1969, Walker, Eda, and other artists began painting the Wall of Truth across the street from the first mural on a partly boarded-up building that housed a day care center and drug abuse clinic. Provoked by recent upheavals—the assassinations of King and Robert Kennedy, the police murder of local Black Panther leader Fred Hampton, widespread ghetto insurrections, the soaring crime rate, and the spread of drugs—this mural was starker and more defiant, dealing with conditions in the local community as well as in all inner-city neighborhoods. Direct painting on brick was combined with portable panels, text, and collaged posters.
The rioting that rocked American cities in the late 60s angered Walker. “I think it was absolutely ridiculous for people to burn down their communities, absolutely stupid,” he says. “You don’t burn ’em out, you buy ’em out. You not only burn your community, you cause unemployment, cause a lot of other things. It’s asinine. I don’t care who owned the stores–businesspeople are businesspeople. They provide jobs for people in the community. It’s asinine, ridiculous, my friend.”
At the same time, Walker and Eda renewed work on the Wall of Respect, along with Caton, Will Hancock, and others. Eda replaced his statesmen section with images of police brutality and the Ku Klux Klan. Walker replaced his Nat Turner section with Peace and Salvation, a composition about racial confrontation whose imagery—opposing rows of blacks and whites glaring at each other—he’d later amplify in other murals. “He felt the walls should be like a newspaper, changing week to week and brought up to date,” says Eda.
The artists also added a section honoring local heroes, including a portrait of Herbert Colbert, head of the 43rd Street Community Organization. Colbert had primed the original wall. He was later found dead, shot and propped up against the wall directly below his picture. Walker doesn’t know what trouble Colbert had gotten into, though he’d later heard that an outside gang had tried moving into the neighborhood because they wanted the wall.
The more famous the walls became the more opposition the city encountered in its plans to raze the area, according to Toward a People’s Art: The Contemporary Mural Movement, a 1977 book by Eva Cockcroft, John Pitman Weber, and John Cockcroft. A series of rallies against urban renewal in 1969 and ’70 forced the city to delay scheduled demolitions. Though residents wanted to rehabilitate the buildings, turning at least one into a community service and art center, the city insisted the structures were unsafe. Eventually the city promised to build a center after the structures were bulldozed. A sign went up on the Wall of Truth: “We the People / Of this Community / Claim this building in order / To preserve what is ours.”
The two walls served as models as community-based mural painting spread from the south side to other poor and working-class neighborhoods. Inspired by the walls’ connection to the civil rights movement, other minority groups joined in using this new populist art form to express their cultural heritage and neighborhood concerns and aspirations. From the outset, mural art in Chicago—historically a center of socially conscious art and literature, working-class culture, and innovative community organizing efforts—was characterized by local sponsorship and interaction between artists and residents, who often helped to paint. The city provided a rich soil in which the movement could take root and grow.
Wall of Respect “lit up lightbulbs for hundreds of artists,” says John Pitman Weber, a white muralist who first saw the work in 1968. “We said, ‘Aha! That’s something we can do, something like that, in different variations.’ Its linkage to black struggles . . . opened up the possibility of murals becoming a widespread cultural phenomenon and a vehicle of expression for a greater democratic participation in society for every other group who wanted to express their ethnic identity.”
Weber, now an internationally known muralist and a professor of art at Elmhurst College, says that Walker was the “main link” between the wall and the artists who began to call themselves muralists by 1970, so it was only natural that Walker came to be seen as the movement’s founding father. “He was more about civil rights than black power—not that he didn’t have a sense of black righteousness,” says Weber. “He did buy into the black consciousness concept.
“He was connected to the aspect of murals that arose out of social struggle. He represented a moral commitment because he saw being a public artist as a moral task. He saw [it] as being a duty, a civic trust. It was a question of respecting people and art. It wasn’t art for art’s sake. He had a teaching obligation to society.”
In 1969, Weber painted his first mural, All Power to the People, with black youths at Saint Dominic’s Church near Cabrini-Green. “But I was just a naive cub,” he says. “I knew of Bill Walker, but I didn’t know how to meet him.” Margaret Burroughs hooked the two up in early 1970. That summer, Weber organized the Community Mural Project as part of Reverend James Shiflett’s Community Arts Foundation; soon he teamed up with Walker to form the Chicago Mural Group to work on other projects. By the end of the year, more than 30 murals directed by black, white, Asian, and Latino artists had been completed in Chicago; murals had also begun to multiply in a dozen other major cities, especially in Boston, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.
The movement earned a measure of art-world respectability when the exhibit “Murals for the People” opened in February 1971 at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. As part of the show, Walker, Weber, Eda, and Mark Rogovin (founder of the Public Art Workshop in Austin) each painted a portable panel in the museum’s basement (Walker’s piece, Wall of Family Love, was later installed at the South Side Community Art Center). That same month the women’s board of the MCA visited the Wall of Respect and the Wall of Truth to see what might be done to save them. Jesse Jackson also campaigned to save the buildings.
In March, while the artists were still drawing people to the MCA, a fire broke out in the rear of Johnny Ray’s TV repair shop, engulfing the building that bore the Wall of Respect. The city could now proceed with its long-delayed slum-clearance plans. “There are a lot of questions about that fire,” Walker says now. A few panels from each of the landmark murals were salvaged before the structures were razed. Eda later had the panels installed outside of Malcolm X College, where they remained until going into storage at Chicago State University in 1986. They were recently donated to the DuSable Museum.
The Martin Luther King Jr. Community Services Center was built at 43rd and Cottage Grove in 1974. Though the city had wanted to install a fountain in the center’s courtyard near Langley, Burroughs fought to get art. Eda, working as an artist in residence with the Chicago Council on Fine Arts, completed Cultural Mural (Dedicated to the Wall of Respect) in 1979. The freestanding porcelain enamel artwork still stands on the former site of the mural that started it all.
Artist Murry DePillars, executive vice president of Chicago State University and a member of AfriCobra, remembers Walker working on the Wall of Truth. “Bill had two milk crates, one for him and one for anybody else. . . . He’d continue to paint while talking to you. He became so acquainted with people in the neighborhod where he was working that you got the impression he’d lived there for years. He got to know everybody—the elderly, kids. That’s an admirable trait, and in many ways being a muralist was an ideal outlet for him. Bill didn’t work to get a reputation or to be written up. He was truly doing it for the community.”
Walker says, “Any muralist who’s doing anything of a thoughtful nature should always have input from the community. You talk to them and they talk to you. People should deal with the leadership in the community—ministers, businesses, social workers, youth clubs, if there are any. If they don’t wish to be involved, they can direct you to people to contact. You can’t do things that make people think they’re not a part of things.”
Walker has a story for every major mural he’s done, tales complete with names of local leaders and street regulars who shared their experiences and helped shape the artwork’s message. Yet he also has stories about murals he didn’t do, mostly because he couldn’t get neighborhood residents involved.
He tells of one time in the early 70s when he was invited to paint a large-scale mural on a west-side bank. “They said, ‘We don’t want no mean-looking faces,'” he recalls. They were referring to the central image of his Peace and Salvation: Wall of Understanding, which Walker had recently completed. “I told them it wasn’t hateful—it was designed to show the stupidity of hate. They wouldn’t let me go out into the community—it was predominantly a gang community–and talk with gang leaders. I didn’t want it disrespected, defaced. I refused to do the project, even though I could’ve used the ten grand. People in the community would’ve felt I had alienated them, and that I did not want to do.”
Walker was extraordinarily active in the early 70s, with funding help from the Chicago Mural Group and the Community Mural Project. Among other works, he painted three murals in the Cabrini-Green area; only one, All of Mankind, survives. While teaching a mural painting class at Highland Park High School in 1972 and ’73, Walker began receiving new commissions outside the scope of the groups’ programs. The Amalgamated Meatcutters Union hired Walker to paint History of the Packinghouse Worker on their south-side union hall.
Walker left the Chicago Mural Group in late 1974. Weber has called his departure a “severe blow” but “perhaps a natural progression,” since he’d begun to work on his own projects. Yet his example and influence continued to animate the CMG: the multiracial group’s dozen core muralists—including such key figures as Caton, Caryl Yasko, Astrid Fuller, and Ray Patlan—refined Walker’s intensive methods for encouraging community involvement as they worked with various residents to bring public art to the city’s neighborhoods.
In 1975, Walker took steps toward founding his own mural organization, International Walls, Inc. He’d wanted to hire artists, put together a board of directors, and raise money. But it became a “complicated situation,” he says. “I would’ve had to become a hustler.” He didn’t want to get involved in the legalities of running a nonprofit group and possibly compromise his principles. Besides, he says, “a board can oust you.” The three murals labeled as International Walls works—Justice Speaks: Delbert Tibbs—New Trial or Freedom, Childhood Is Without Prejudice, and Saint Martin Luther King—were “personally sponsored,” or paid for out of his own pocket.
Saint Martin Luther King was located on either side of a viaduct at 40th and King Drive. The mural on the west side showed the civil rights leader inside a cross, which, Walker says, some residents took to be sacrilegious. “A lot of people misunderstood it,” he says. “I had to explain he was standing in the cross, not hanging on the cross.” The owner of a tavern across the street didn’t like the figure looking directly into her bar. Still, King’s father, who happened to have been in town when Walker finished painting, admired the murals and dedicated them. Walker whitewashed the walls a couple of years later because they’d been defaced.
Walker was one of three artists—and the first contemporary muralist as well as the first African-American—to receive a percent-for-art commission from the city of Chicago when it passed legislation in 1979 requiring that 1 percent of municipal construction costs be devoted to art. Jerry Peart and Barry Tinsley were tapped to create sculptures for new police stations, while Walker got $6,500 to paint Reaching Children, Touching People, a mural about the role of families in communities for the Altgeld Gardens Parent-Child Center.
In Walker’s art, family love and the family-instilled values of education and self-esteem can act as redemptive forces against the city’s seductive evils.
“Family is the greatest thing in the world,” he says. “I would imagine it’s a wonderful thing. I was greatly loved and protected by my uncles and aunts, by my mother, by my grandmother above all. But [family] is a thing, in many ways, I missed. It wasn’t in my personal life. Whoever befriends you, that’s your family. Whoever is kind and considerate to you, that’s your brother and sister, that’s your family.”
Walker’s 70s murals are considered watershed works of the community mural movement. They are statements of both affirmation and resistance. They don’t just make a statement; they try to make you act. Shot through with the dualities of good and evil, love and hate, light and dark, his murals address problems and propose solutions. Blacks and whites may raise fists and point guns at each other, but there’s always the hope of reconciliation through “goodwill,” a favorite Walker concept. People may be depicted as pawns on chessboards, victims of circumstances beyond their control; gangsters and drug dealers may prey on kids and destroy communities; churches may even be powerless to prevent an earthly apocalypse. But Walker, with his sermons painted on stone, tries to show people how to confront the forces that threaten to destroy them, how to do the right thing.
“He’s a critic who looks at our society with a great deal of acuity and yet always with optimism,” says Victor Sorell. “He’s not a doomsayer, not a Cassandra who would bring down walls on people, but rather he sees his murals as giving people a window on what can be as opposed to what is. I think he’s a person with a sense of hope and I think he endures against hopelessness. He does his murals as testament to the fact that hope springs eternal. He’s about healing, bridge building, yet at the same time he’s very earnest about the ills of society. He doesn’t deny that they exist, but he doesn’t believe in conceding victory to those ills. He always believes you can overturn those ills.”
“I am not a cultural nationalist,” Walker once told me. “I am for the unification of all mankind. I’m not into whitism, not into blackism, not into damn-anythingism. I’m into humanism.”
The artist and his art are a warning to man of dangers ahead. If man fails to understand this, total destruction must surely come. —Bill Walker, 1971
Walker turned increasingly to studio work in the late 70s, when he began visiting the area around 47th and King Drive.
He’d passed through the neighborhood countless times since helping to paint Wall of Daydreaming, Man’s Inhumanity to Man several years before, but he says he’d never really gotten to know the people in the community. The devastation he saw there disturbed him; it seemed to him as if the mural, critical of the community’s drug and gang problems, had been done for naught—not that he could ever expect a piece of street art painted on a smack-dealing corner to change peoples’ behavior overnight.
So Walker stayed for a while—just as he did at 43rd and Langley, Cabrini-Green, and Hyde Park. He became a virtual resident, doing what he’s called on-the-spot research about the “people of the underworld culture.” But this time, instead of working on walls, he sketched in pads.
It was an area lacking leadership and good examples, Walker says, lorded over by reputed kingpins such as Flukey Stokes, a Robin Hood-like hero whom Walker often saw tooling around the neighborhood amid a fleet of flashy limousines, handing out bills to little kids, and helping down-and-out families (Stokes was gunned down in ’86).
“I was concerned about what was happening in the street,” says Walker. “I could see the connections between hopelessness and kids who might not have the advantage of a good family situation. When I started understanding more about street life, I started understanding that I should try to make some kind of visual statement concerned with the times. I wanted to be as objective about it as possible.”
After exhibiting the first crop of pieces at the South Side Community Art Center in 1980, Walker had to leave his longtime home near 61st and Vernon because “drug trafficking had destroyed the building.” Walker then moved into Burroughs’s Bronzeville building. “She really helped him out when he might’ve been out on the streets,” says Sorell. As Walker continued to hang out along 47th Street, he says he began to see the bigger picture; a few of his artworks reflected the menacing impact that government economic policies had on the area’s poor and working people.
“Images of Conscience: The Art of Bill Walker” debuted at Chicago State University in the fall of 1984. The exhibit, cocurated by Sorell and Robert Weitz, showed 44 paintings and drawings in three series: “For Blacks Only”; “Red, White and Blue, I Love You”; and “Reaganomics.” When Walker donated the works to CSU in April of ’86 journalist Patrick Reardon wrote in the Tribune, “This art is of violence. This art is of drugs and pimps and victims, of beatings and shootings, of men with big hats, of heroin thick as snow, of empty tables and empty plates, of bloody knives and broken glasses, of stick-ups, of gang wars, of rapes and gambling and murders. And of the children who see it all.”
These were not pretty pictures. Walker says the exhibit drew a lot of criticism from African-Americans who thought he was dwelling on the negative aspects of urban black neighborhoods. His figures resembled caricatures. When people told him they were upset, Walker said they should instead be upset by the crime and corruption in their communities. One man, he recalls, apologized some months later. Sorell, then chairman of CSU’s art department, says that many potential national exhibitors balked at displaying the art, and it wasn’t until early ’87 that CSU raised enough cash for a catalog. Eventually the exhibit traveled to the Vaughn Cultural Center in Saint Louis and the Paul Robeson Cultural Center at Pennyslvania State University.
Throughout the 80s, Walker painted a series of untitled outdoor murals on Norwood’s, a grocery store at the corner of 47th and Champlain among a block of small businesses called Simms Corner. They were “quick things,” he says, and he changed them every few years. After Harold Washington died in 1987, Tommy Lee Norwood, the store’s late proprietor, hired Walker to do a tribute to the mayor. The mural depicts Washington with such figures as Ed Vrdolyak, Ed Burke, Dorothy Tillman, Richard Mell, and David Orr. “Some people wanted me to illustrate some of them in uncomplimentary ways,” says Walker. “But all I wanted to do was just introduce the personalities.”
Several years ago, Walker discovered that most (but not all) of the mural had been retouched. “It was some neighborhood guy, I never knew his name,” he says. “He was a nice guy. He tried.” Simms Corner—and Norwood’s—suffered major fire damage last summer. The mural, though visible, is a bit rough. Walker says he’s not sure if he wants to work on it again. Sometimes he fears his mural painting days may be over.
Since 1967, Walker has completed about 30 indoor and outdoor murals in Chicago, about half of which survive. Of the six still visible on the streets, three are fading fast; another, the All of Mankind mural cycle at the Strangers Home Missionary Baptist Church, is still in relatively good shape. But the church, located in Cabrini-Green, faces an uncertain future. When the landmark antiracism mural Peace and Salvation: Wall of Understanding, which had stood nearby for 21 years, was whitewashed in ’91, people began thinking of ways to save other endangered murals.
“Some of Walker’s best work no longer exists, and those pieces that do exist are richly deserving to be restored because otherwise we’ll never see them again,” says Jon Pounds, executive director of the Chicago Public Art Group (formerly the Chicago Mural Group, which Walker and Weber founded in 1970).
But raising money to restore the classic murals of Walker and other artists has been difficult. Pounds points out that Los Angeles and San Francisco—the other major centers of contemporary mural activity—help fund independent restoration efforts, but the city of Chicago has no program to assist arts groups in mural maintenance. “Just look at all the goodwill the city could buy in its neighborhoods,” says Pounds. “For modest monies, these works can be refreshed for community residents, and be an attraction for visitors to the city from the region and from around the world.”
Walker, for his part, is philosophical about the transient nature of outdoor art: if it goes, it goes. He doesn’t seem concerned that many of his murals aren’t around anymore, that some of his masterworks may soon vanish, even though each piece took months, sometimes years, to complete.
What’s the point of painting outdoor works that are destined to grow old and die? Can murals, in their relatively brief life-span, really change things?
“It might affect one or two people, but you can’t change a lot of people,” Walker says. “What it can lead to is that art is no longer a mysterious thing—the artist is no longer a mysterious person, an individual working alone in a studio. If you remain in the community and get to know people, then you can start winning over younger people. You can’t change a person who’s already made up their mind about life.”
During the 70s, Walker habitually retouched some of his murals, often adding elements as current events warranted. But now, with the onset of old age, he’s reconciled to the fact that time and the elements take their toll on all things. Murals, he thinks, mirror the cycle of birth, life, decay, and death.
“They serve a purpose, and then you go on to something else,” he says. “There’s no time to be sentimental. You just push on.”
Walker keeps his eyes on the road as we drive through Kenwood, then hit Lake Shore Drive. He’s offered to drop me off at home. “I don’t feel 70,” he says. “I try to be as active as I can be, mentally and physically. I try not to shuffle. It has a lot to do with your mental attitude. I don’t accept the attitude that some young people have towards senior citizens. I don’t accept that kind of treatment. I stay active—I know my place. But when you’re 70, you need a little privacy. I’ve lived a very simple life, a very frugal life, to do the things I’ve wanted to do.” I kid him about his Cadillac Seville. “This car is the only luxury I really have,” he says. “This vehicle has become very important to me.”
A self-described “court buff,” Walker often drives downtown to take in the trials of underworld figures such as Rocky Infelice and Jeff Fort—”all the major criminal cases, from the Mafia to the gangs.” He also reads a lot of books about mobsters—Al Capone, John Gotti, Tony Accardo, Joey Aiuppa, the Spilotro brothers. He could talk for hours about this stuff.
“I try to see the parallels between black gangs and the Mafia,” Walker says. “I’m trying to see the connections in the behavior of certain individuals, trying to see the similarities. It’s remarkably close, when you talk about people like Larry Hoover and Jeff Fort. Their social behavior, their clannishness and codes, the overall attitude of any group that feels they must organize in order not only to survive but to prosper in society…all of that’s similar. Trials happen to be one of the ways of seeing the whole picture. I try to look at it objectively, view it from a distance.”
Walker has been viewing the criminal justice system firsthand for more than 15 years. In 1982, he attended every single day of the “Marquette Ten” police corruption trial, when ten police officers were accused of shaking down heroin dealers. While the case was still in court, Walker painted a mural about cops and drugs called Wall of Warning at 56th and Indiana. But he says he was “run out of the community” when the El Rukns objected to their symbol appearing on the wall. It didn’t occur to him until later that he could’ve been killed. Nine of the ten officers were found guilty.
Walker says he started going to court trials “to have an understanding of [organized crime] for my own survival.” It’s one thing to work in a neighborhood and see the effects of gangs, he says; it’s quite another to hear testimony about how they are organized and operate. “It’s a reality that becomes so close to community people,” he explains. “You can be drawn into it without being aware of it when you find yourself in a precarious position. Like, if people can’t get a loan, they go to loan sharks. . . . There are so many ways of becoming involved. It’s not good to become involved in any antisocial organization that acts as predator.”
Walker’s insights into criminal predation are shaping his current artwork. Since the mid-80s, he’s been working on “Ida B.,” yet another series of paintings and drawings about street life. He says he’s using “rawer colors and techniques” than in his past studio work because the often violent subject matter demands a more deliberate crudeness. Walker says the series may again upset some viewers. “It might be a turnoff to people who don’t care to be reminded of reality.”
Walker also keeps up with mural art on the streets. “I’m very proud of the beautiful things being executed, and I feel privileged to see it continuing,” he says. “I always wait till no one’s around, then I go to look and see what my friends are doing. I’m proud of the present mural movement. It’s so very important visually to the city as a whole. You need message murals moreso now because of the behavior in communities. They are still necessary.
“I’m happy I got involved in OBAC. I feel blessed to have worked with Eugene Eda, Mitchell Caton, John Weber, Mark Rogovin, Ray Patlan, Caryl Yasko, Astrid Fuller. Had the city only realized what all these people contributed. They contributed a great deal to this city. But I don’t think the city really did understand all the meaningful work going on. Maybe one of these days they’ll realize it was a wonderful period, and that we contributed greatly to this city. We tried to make some meaningful statements. We had respect for the community and for each other. We worked like hell.
“I’ve tried to do some meaningful things, as meaningful as possible. I did my best, that’s all I could do. I’m grateful God gave me some talent to meet the occasion as best as I could.” o
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Bill Walker photo by Nathan Mandell; “Wall of Respect,” 1967 (original OBAC mural) photo by Robert A. Sengstacke; Wall of Respect, 1967 (revised by Walker, Eda, and others); untitled photos by Jim Prigoff; Childhood Is Without Prejudice, 1977 photo by Nathan Mandell; untiltled photo by Nathan Mandell.