BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — The photograph of the young man was famous — a civil rights marcher in a sweater being attacked on May 3, 1963 by a German shepherd police dog in downtown Birmingham. A statue in Kelly Ingram Park is based on the picture.
Walter Lee Fowlkes,72, known to friends and family as “Lee,” died on Feb. 13. He had suffered from dementia in recent years and was not able to do interviews. But people who knew him say he was not worried about seeking credit for his role in the civil rights movement.
“He was just very humble,” said Sarah Jordan, his cousin who was raised in the same house by Fowlkes’ mother, Mary, after her own mother died. “He didn’t elaborate on it a lot. That’s just what happened.”
Jordan recalled that Fowlkes was a student at Miles College at the time of the civil rights demonstrations led by King in Birmingham in April and May 1963.
Pastor John A. Salary of Mount Olive Baptist Church in Fairfield, across the street from Fowlkes’ home and two blocks from Miles College, invited King to speak in 1963.
“A lot of churches were afraid to have Dr. King speak because they were afraid of being bombed,” said the Rev. Michael Newton, an English teacher at Carver High. Newton has been pastor of Mount Olive Baptist Church since 2002, taking over after Salary had served as pastor for 56 years. “Dr. King came and spoke at our church.”
King and Salary urged Miles College students to be active in the civil rights marches. Fowlkes, a member of Mount Olive Baptist, was at those rallies and learned about the principles of non-violent resistance from Salary, Jordan said.
Jordan, now 66, said Fowlkes went to Miles for about two and half years, then worked at a dry cleaner in Birmingham and at the Pullman Standard rail car plant in Bessemer. He left Birmingham in his twenties and moved to the Los Angeles area to work for a General Motors plant. He was transferred to another plant in the St. Louis area, and bought a house in the suburb of St. Charles, where he lived for many years, Jordan said.
Fowlkes retired from General Motors in 2000 and moved back to Fairfield, said his son, the Rev. Clayton Smith, pastor of Bread of Life Church in Center Point.
People again began to talk about the picture, and the dogs and firehoses.
“We had a couple of conversations about it,” Smith said. “He at one point was taunting the dogs like a bullfighter. He was not a scared man. The picture was blown up and put into a frame. It was hanging in his house until the day he died. He never talked about it much.”
Fowlkes had five children. He was one of five brothers, only one of whom is still living, in the Detroit area.
Jordan said that Fowlkes did what he thought needed to be done in 1963, taking a stand for civil rights.
“He didn’t make a fuss of it,” Jordan said. “He just went on with his life and wasn’t really looking for notoriety. At the time, he was motivated, committed, doing what he had to do. He was known and admired in Fairfield. He was definitely revered in the community. They knew he was a brave guy. You can see in the picture he wasn’t backing down. He wanted change, and he was going to be part of that change, come hell or high water.”