By David Humphrey
For The Herald Bulletin
---- — Fans of classic movies believe that "To Kill a Mockingbird" is one of the greatest Hollywood films of all time. And film buffs in Madison County know that a Pendleton native had a role in that landmark motion picture.
From the 1940s through the 1980s, William Walker appeared in over 100 movies and television shows. After serving with the United States Army in France during World War I, Walker became a singer and bandleader. Before his six decade career in Hollywood began, Walker appeared on Broadway including Oscar Hammerstein's 1929 "Golden Dawn." In 1946, Walker had a walk on part in the film "The Killers," starring Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner. Though Walker had an uncredited role in "The Killers," he found steady work as a character actor that led to him playing Reverend Sykes in "To Kill A Mockingbird."
The 1962 theatrical release was based on the novel of the same name written by Harper Lee, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her work. Gregory Peck received an Academy Award for his role as Atticus Finch in the film. In the movie, Walker portrayed Reverend Sykes, minister of the church where the accused rapist Tom Robinson attends. During the trial, Walker's character sat in the segregated balcony of the courthouse with fellow members of his race and the children of Atticus Finch. After Finch loses the case and is leaving the courtroom, Reverend Sykes tells Finch's daughter, "Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father's passin'." The meaning behind those spoken words have been a topic of conversation for many years.
Though William Walker became a familiar face in the movies and on television, his most important role in Hollywood may have been off camera. In the late 1940s, Walker became a civil rights activist who ensured that fellow black actors obtain roles that portrayed the race in a true light. Walker joined the Screen Actors Guild Board of Directors in 1952, where he served until 1971. During his 19 years on the Screen Actors Guild Board of Directors, Walker worked closely with Ronald Reagan, who was president of the Screen Actors Guild six times from 1947 through 1960. Reagan stood alongside Walker when the actor presented his report titled "More and Better Roles for Negroes in Motion Pictures" at the Guild's 1952 annual meeting.
Though the report caused quite a stir in the motion picture industry, no significant changes came for black actors in Hollywood movies. However, Walker continued to lobby Hollywood executives and eventually partnered with the NAACP to put an end to racial stereotyping in moves. In 1963, Walker's crusade led to a non-discrimination clause being added to the Screen Actor's Guild Theatrical Agreement. When former Screen Actor's Guild president Ronald Reagan became president of the United States, the Gipper honored William Walker on behalf of the black press for his role as a doctor in "The Well," a 1951 film dealing with racial tensions in a small town. The critically acclaimed movie earned Academy Award nominations for Best Film Editing and Best Original Screenplay.
William Walker never received an Academy Award nomination, but he made a good living at the craft he loved. Throughout his career as an actor, Walker appeared in the films "The Mask," "Larcency," "Walk on the Wild Side," "The Harlem Globetrotters," "The Outcast," "Good Morning Miss Dove," and "The Great White Hope." On television, Walker had supporting roles on "The Twilight Zone," "Rawhide," "Daniel Boone," "The Rockford Files," "The Rookies," "Mannix" and "What's Happening!".
Born in Pendleton, Indiana on July 1, 1896, Walker married actress Peggy Cartwright in 1962, one of the early interracial marriages in Hollywood. Cartwright played the leading lady in the "Our Gang" comedies and was the last surviving member of the original "Our Gang" group of children. She died in 2001 at the age of 89. William Walker passed away on January 27, 1992. He was 95 years of age. The two are buried side by side at Riverside National Cemetery in Riverside, Calif.