Walker Knight, Groundbreaking Editor of Baptist Publications, Has Died

by Dallas Lee | January 6, 2020

Walker Leigh Knight, the Baylor-educated writer and editor whose epic poem The Peacemaker includes the once widely quoted phrase “Peace, like War, is Waged,” died in Atlanta shortly before Christmas. He was 95.

When President Jimmy Carter incorporated Knight’s iconic line into the signing ceremony of the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian Peace Treaty, the next day’s Washington Post front-page headline read:
“Sadat and Begin Sign Treaty; Carter Pledges to ‘Wage Peace.'”

For four decades beginning in the 1960s, Knight earned both praise and enmity for addressing the challenges of poverty and race in church-related publications—most notably the Baptist Home Mission Board magazine, Missions USA. His courage and professionalism attracted a legion of talented writers and photographers who otherwise might never have considered church-related careers.

Ministry and journalism flowed naturally into Walker’s life. Born and raised in Henderson, Kentucky, he was the son of a devout mother who insisted on Sunday School, and an alcoholic father who was managing editor of the local newspaper, The Henderson Gleaner & Journal. As a boy, Walker – the eldest of nine children – welcomed chores at the paper, befriended typesetters and printers, and sold newspapers on the street. The entire operation fascinated him.

When the Gleaner & Journal lost a reporter, Walker’s dad urged him to drop out of high school and come to work. Walker loved school and declined. But when his dad talked the principal into arranging for news-writing assignments to come through the teachers, Walker jumped at the chance. “The principal thought I could learn as much from the work as from schooling,” he wrote in his memoir, From Zion to Atlanta.

The great heartbreak was his father’s sudden disappearance at the age of 43, leaving his mother at home with Walker and eight younger children. His father was never to be heard from again. Some of Walker’s most powerful poetry centered on that heartache and mystery.

At home, he accepted added responsibilities and welcomed his mother’s insistence on staying involved in the Baptist church. He developed his deepest friendships there, relished bible study, and as a teenager experienced what he felt was a distinct call to ministry.

War Before Waco

Before Baylor helped him blend journalism and ministry, World War II intervened. Aware of upcoming induction, Walker volunteered for the Army Air Corps, hoping to become a pilot. But the Army placed him in the Signal Corps, with training in Tyler, Texas. At First Baptist Church there, he met the love of his life, Iva Nell Moseley (Nell). Sent on to California for further training, he applied as soon as eligible for a 10-day leave to get married, and used up half that time on trains between California and Texas.

As a married recruit in Fresno, he was allowed to rent a furnished room off the base until he was shipped overseas. By then, his call to ministry had put Baylor University foremost in mind – and he knew it was not far from Nell’s hometown. He spent the war years in a remote communications outpost along the Yangtze River in China.

Faith, Journalism and Veterans’ Housing

At war’s end, Walker returned to Nell in Tyler, and with his GI bill in hand, they moved to Waco and Baylor, where they experienced a married veteran’s quintessential post-war life – temporary veterans’ housing at Eighth and Speight Streets. “Because they had been movable at one time, we called the units trailers,” he wrote in his memoir. “There were 28 in the five rows. A laundry room, complete with coin-operated washing machines and large tubs, took the space of two units at the south end of the middle row. We dried clothes on lines between the unit rows.

“There were five rows of units, with shared bathrooms and front porches. It was not long before someone observed, ‘You either become close friends or quit speaking to the other families.’ Luckily, we became friends with the Ratliffs and the McGregors.” The Knights’ first child was born in those first years – a son, Walker Leigh Knight Jr.

Early on, Walker began writing for the Baylor Lariat. But he needed income, and still testing a call to the pulpit, he accepted a pastorate at the Dale Baptist Church, a small community south of Austin – a 280-mile roundtrip in an “iffy” 1940 sedan. When a second baby was born – Kenneth Wayne – he forsook the pulpit for a better-paying job as editor of the weekly Falls County Record in Marlin, Texas, just 30 miles south of Waco.

The Baptist Standard

After graduation, Walker accepted an offer in Dallas to be associate editor of The Baptist Standard, a publication of the Baptist General Convention of Texas. A daughter (Nelda Denise) was born there in 1954.

Walker and Nell at her parents home a few days after marrying in 1943. (Courtesy of Knight family)

As associate editor of The Standard, Walker introduced a livelier design and 35mm news-style photography, and began reporting on a wider range of relevant news – but not without being challenged. At the Standard, the editor and publisher was David M. Gardner, who had been a pastor for 30 years before that, with no journalism experience.

Gardner’s primary goal, Walker wrote in his memoir, “was a free church in a free state. He was consumed with countering every move he saw Roman Catholics taking to break down the wall between church and state. It did not surprise me much when I learned that during his pastorate of the First Baptist Church of St. Petersburg, he was a chaplain to the Ku Klux Klan in Florida, more because the Klan was anti-Catholic than racist.”

As Walker tells it in his book, Gardner even resisted the appeal of Billy Graham, who had joined the First Baptist Church of Dallas, ahead of a scheduled crusade in Fort Worth. When Walker published a page one photo of Graham, he was summoned to Gardner’s office. “Walker, this is unacceptable,” Walker recalled him saying. “I don’t like giving Graham that much publicity when he might lead Baptists into ecumenism.”

Soon Walker had the support a new editor, Dr. E.S. James, who was accustomed himself to controversy. By today’s standards, Walker wrote, Dr. James’ editorial subjects were mild – “pre-millennialism, the Scofield Bible’s dating of the world, the Trail of Blood theory of history (that Baptists could be traced all the way back to Jesus), the separation of church and state, and positions on divorce or gambling.”

“However, personally I was not always pleased with his decisions,” Walker wrote of Dr. James. “He joined First Baptist Church of Dallas and soon was publishing a series of articles by W.A. Criswell seeking to prove that evolution was a false theory.” When James published an article by an Oklahoma pastor that sought to prove that Trail of Blood theory, professors at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary invited James to Fort Worth for an evening meal, where they “explained the facts of history. Dr. James was convinced enough to publish an apology.”

Greatest Challenge

Walker remained at the Baptist Standard until 1960, when he joined the Baptist Home Mission Board in Atlanta as editor of Home Missions Magazine, which he later re-named Missions USA. Soon a fourth child was born, a daughter named Emily Jill.

In Atlanta, Knight’s greatest challenge became clear early on. “I quickly faced the hold that racism held on Southern Baptists,” he wrote. “… at one point I was taken before a top supervisor because [it was claimed] I was threatening the income of the agency with my editorials and coverage of issues related to black Americans.”

Walker stood his ground, gained the support of then HMB executive director, Dr. Arthur Rutledge, and brought a professional news urgency to deeply reported stories of missionaries in the home field. He attracted and nourished the careers of dozens of talented writers and photographers who otherwise might never have considered careers in church-related journalism.

Baptists were seeing hard-biting stories about folks left out of the American dream; about lives lived beyond the reach of most churches in America – in inner-cities, Appalachian hollows, and sprawling Indian reservations, illustrated with world-class photography. One of Knight’s books, featuring the work of photographer Don Rutledge and designed by the writer/editor Everett Hullum, was aptly titled See How Love Works.

McCall, an African-American minister who served on the executive staff of the Home Mission Board from 1968 until 1991, described the magazine under Walker’s leadership as “perhaps the most effective communication that caused Southern Baptists to become more open and sensitive to racial reconciliation.”

One notable writer of that era was Toby Druin (Baylor 1966), who later became editor of The Baptist Standard in Texas.) “When I was interviewing at the HMB, I asked Jim Sapp, Walker’s immediate supervisor, what it would be like to work for Walker, and his answer was, ‘In Walker Knight there is no guile.’ Walker was a great mentor, boss and friend,” Druin said.

In 1982, Knight resigned and, with the financial support of backers, launched an independent, issues-oriented publication. Jim Newton, then the news editor at the Home Mission Board, suggested the name SBC Today, evocative of the national newspaper USA Today.

Oakhurst Baptist Church

Along with his courage and accomplishments as a writer and editor, Knight is remembered for his influential presence and leadership at the Oakhurst Baptist Church in Decatur. Oakhurst was an aging-but-stable community just east of the Atlanta city limits. But as happened in so many neighborhoods during the 1960s, predominantly white Oakhurst rapidly absorbed lower-income black families displaced by inner-city urban renewal.

For many churches, this dynamic generated retreat to the suburbs. But the Oakhurst Baptist congregation dug in, sold the property it held for expansion, and invested in ways to serve a neighborhood experiencing rapid transition from middle-class white to racially mixed and mostly lower income. Many members left, but many new members were attracted.

Struggle for Integrity

In his book, Struggle for Integrity (Word Press), Knight chronicled how the Oakhurst congregation lost half its membership, but survived and thrived with a new sense of mission. The congregation invested in programs for neighborhood children and families; developed an extraordinarily talented music and choir program with an exceptional leader, Billy Densmore; established a ministry to addicts; called a progressive new pastor (John Nichol, now retired); and, as Knight wrote, “attracted some of the most gifted Christians … and ordained more than 50 lay ministers – men and women, gay and straight.”

One of Walker’s closest friends – Don Hammonds – said at the funeral, “Walker was my hero before I knew him. I was in Louisiana working with college students. Race was a hot issue, and Home Missions Magazine was a conversation starter for change to happen on college campuses.” When Hammonds was recruited to the HMB staff, he said, “it was not long before I saw that Walker lived what he said and what he wrote.”

Walker and Nell, with sons Walker, Jr. and Ken in 1948. (Courtesy of Knight family)

Oakhurst pastor John Nichol also became one of Knight’s closest friends, and a confidant. At the funeral service on Oct. 14, 2019 at Oakhurst church, Nichol spoke of how best to understand Walker’s spirit and strength of commitment. “You have to go back to the time when as a teenager he made his first major trip out of Henderson County, Kentucky, with a group of teenagers from his church, to attend Training Union Week at the Baptist Assembly in Ridgecrest, N.C. The preacher for that week was C. Oscar Johnson, well known as the pastor of Third Baptist Church in St. Louis, Missouri … his passage for Thursday night of that week was Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled. Dr. Johnson said that the verse could also be translated Blessed are those who want to see things set right, for they will help accomplish it.

“Walker’s commitment to the creation of a more inclusive fellowship here at Oakhurst was part of his determination to see things set right, and his willingness to help accomplish it. That same commitment to justice was evidenced in his entire career as a journalist.”

Nichol closed with this observation: “Several years ago Walker introduced me to his favorite poet, Wendell Berry, a fellow Kentuckian. There is a beautiful line in one of Berry’s poems about the process of ageing – There is a Sycamore that I watch as growing on the riverbank it forecloses the horizon like the years of an old man. For the last several years Walker and I have been making that journey … a journey of increasing physical limitations, the surrendering of freedoms, the frustrations of dependency.

“Walker’s life has certainly been no exception. The incredible hardships and insecurities of his childhood, the unexplained departure of his father, his beloved mother’s struggle as a single parent to hold the family together and provide the love each child needed. The eventual loss of his own treasured wife, Nell … These experiences had indeed hollowed out his heart in ways that could have broken him. He might well have turned inward in despair. Instead he learned as Nietzsche once said, to love his wounds … to make a conscious decision to stand in his place like that great Sycamore and feed upon those experiences … to allow them to create of his life a strange perfection, a father, grandfather, a friend whose wisdom, love and example continues to inspire and feed us to this day.”

Walker is survived by four children: Walker Knight Jr. and husband Judson McDonald of Denver CO; Kenneth Knight and wife Monika of Cleveland GA; Nelda Coats and husband Chaz Coats of Oriental NC; Jill Knight of Arden NC; grandchildren Tom Knight and wife Cassi of Cumming GA, Shawn Knight and wife Jen of Jonesboro GA, Chandler Coats of Alpharetta GA, and Zach Howell of Raleigh NC. He is also survived by brothers Cooksey Bennett Knight and James Knight of Henderson, KY, and Hiram Knight of Zion, KY; and two sisters, Mary Ruth Gardner of Bonita Springs, FL; and Jane Mahler of Warner Robins, GA.

In a private ceremony, Knight’s body was cremated and placed in a crema at Oakhurst Baptist Church. For the memorial service on December 14, 2019, the family requested donations to the Oakhurst Recovery Program, in lieu of flowers.

Writer’s note: Though by comparison he labored in obscurity, it’s fair to say that Walker Knight’s efforts to forthrightly address issues of racial prejudice and poverty put him in the company of the prize-winning journalists of the same civil rights era – including Ralph McGill and Eugene Patterson of The Atlanta Constitution; Hodding Carter of the Delta Democrat; Gene Roberts of The New York Times and Philadelphia Inquirer; and Reese Cleghorn of The Charlotte Observer.

***
Dallas Lee (BU ’64) was associate editor at the Home Mission Board 1965-1969. He is the author of The Cotton Patch Evidence, the Story of Clarence Jordan and the Koinonia Farm Experiment (Harper & Row), a book that chronicles events leading to creation of Habitat for Humanity. His journalism career began at The Waco News-Tribune and includes McGraw-Hill publications, Missions USA, The Associated Press, and The Atlanta-Journal Constitution. At retirement in 2007, he was an executive speechwriter for Bank of America. He is a native of Graham, Texas, and lives in Charlotte, NC, with his wife Mary.

 


The Peacemaker*

by Walker Knight

It’s not just hating war,
despising war,
sitting back and waiting for war to end. It’s not just loving peace,
wanting peace,
sitting back and waiting for peace to come.

Peace, like war, is waged.
Peace plans its strategy and encircles the enemy. Peace, like war, is waged.
Peace marshals its forces and storms the gates.
Peace, like war, is waged.
Peace gathers its weapons and pierces the defense.
Peace, like war, is waged.
But Christ has turned it all around:
the weapons of peace are love, joy, goodness, longsuffering;
the arms of peace are justice, truth, patience, prayer;
the strategy of peace brings safety, welfare, happiness;
the forces of peace are the sons and daughters of God.

Peace?
What is peace? Where shall I look for peace?
History knows but little of the word –
humankind tells its story by recording its wars:
we humans have few words for peace.
In all the fifty centuries of recorded time,
the brief intervals of peace,
all the days and years together,
human beings have known but 300 years of peace –
for only 300 of our 5,000 recorded years
have the battlefields been silent.

Even that record is deceptive,
like smiles that cloak anger, like gifts given to deceive.
What we so easily call peace has been no peace at all.
We were fools to believe such peace could ever endure –
erected as it was upon the backs of slaves,
it was a house built on sand.
Such peace stopped the fighting by men subduing men.
If the record of those years is closely read,
one quickly finds the pages filled with quiet wars,
little undeclared wars, plans for war,
humans waiting for the right moment to start a new war.

Again in my anguish I cried, God, today, give us peace!

In angry tones I heard God ask,
“Can my world have peace as long as men and women fight?
Can there be world peace as long as men and women kill
in Vietnam, or Cambodia, or Ireland,
[in Iraq or Afghanistan] or
in the United States?

“Can there be peace in the United States
if there is no peace in your state?
“Can there be peace in your state
if there is no peace in your city?
Can there be peace in your city
if there is no peace in your house?
Can there be peace in your house
if there is no peace in you?”

Wait just a minute, I cried.
You’ve put the whole world on my back,
and Lord, that’s too much of a load. That’s unfair.
Peace is needed out there –
out there’s where the killing bloodies the ground
out there’s where violence destroys life
out there’s where widows cry
the children go hungry
the land is ravaged
out there’s where men and women anger at each other.
That’s where peace must come, Lord.
So I pray, bring us Peace.
Why withhold peace, Lord, why?

No answer came and in the quietness.
I slowly began to understand,
just a little, as the meaning soaked in.
Peace does not wait on God.
Peace waits on me.
God does not withhold peace, I do.
Peace – it’s internal;
nothing outside
not words
not writings
not even deeds.
God does not deny peace.
Peace waits on me.
Peace – it’s an attitude
a way of life
a point of view
an ordering of existence.
Peace is not knowing how to act.
Peace is how to be.
Peace is existence. My being.
Peace is essence. My essence.
Peace is life. My life.

Peace is of me.

“The waters of peace come up like the dew from the ground where
even the grains of sand are individual.” – Carlyle Marney

Peace does not wait on God.
Peace waits on me.

*Excerpted

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