Honor befits Black actor who protested stereotypes

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Anderson Herald Bulletin

There are rewarding and heartfelt moments in Harper Lee’s stirring novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird” from 1960.

In one scene, Southern lawyer Atticus Finch has just delivered a courtroom summation in hopes of exonerating a Black man falsely accused of rape. The jury is all white; the main floor of the courtroom is for whites only. Blacks must sit in a balcony.

Among those in the balcony is Rev. Sykes, who is sitting next to Finch’s daughter, Jean Louise, who is also known as Scout.

In one sentence, Sykes teaches the young white girl a lesson in respecting and honoring one’s parents as Atticus walks from the courtroom. “Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passin’.”

In the film version, the line is delivered with solemnity and purpose by actor William “Bill” Walker.

The line had such impact that today it punctuates the acting career of Pendleton native William Franklin “Bill” Walker. But it doesn’t define him.

Walker, who died in 1992 at the age of 95, appeared in nearly 100 motion pictures with roles ranging from “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” to the Abbott and Costello comedy, “Africa Screams.” Many of his roles, reaching from 1946 to the 1970s, were Black stereotypes: a train porter, a bartender, a prisoner.

Walker once said he tried throughout his career to defy racial stereotypes in his work.

“I had a lot of arguments with directors. Most of them knew nothing about how a Negro feels, how he lives, what he thinks.”

Walker’s grandfather, a former slave who had served in an all-Black brigade of the Union Army during the Civil War, came to the Madison County area from North Carolina in the 19th century.

All that history makes even more stunning when all his years as an actor and African American addressing race in the South came to bear: “Stand up. Your father’s passin’.”

When Gregory Peck accepted the Oscar for his role as Atticus Finch, he noted Walker’s contribution to the classic.

On June 24, Walker was memorialized in his hometown with a marker sponsored by the Indiana Historical Bureau.

The marker notes Walkers’ 1915 graduation from Pendleton High School and his service in the all-Black 92nd Army Division in World War I.

His is now one of more than 700 markers honoring Hoosiers throughout the state. It is the sixth historical marker in Madison County and the third in five years. The marker stands in front of the Pendleton Historical Museum. It is a fitting tribute to a man who deserves the accolade.