Longtime Southern Baptist journalist Walker Knight was a man who lived his life at the convergence of faith, character and a love of the written word, said family and longtime friends.
As a journalist, he helped catapult coverage of faith organizations into a new era, raised social consciousness among Southern Baptists and sometimes paid a price for it.
“Dad never wavered in his integrity,” said daughter Jill Knight. “And he lived faith through action.”
Knight, 95, died in Decatur Dec. 1 of heart failure. A memorial service will be at 2 p.m. Dec. 14 at Oakhurst Baptist Church, 222 E. Lake St. in Decatur.
Born in Henderson, Kentucky, in 1924, the oldest of nine siblings, Knight learned his craft under his newspaper-editor father, doing “anything and everything” from setting type to writing copy, said longtime friend Dallas Lee, a former Atlanta Journal-Constitution editor. Equally important was a mother who made sure Knight acquired his strong Southern Baptist underpinnings.
Lee said it was that combination that laid the groundwork and gave Knight a “natural instinct for people who were left out.”
Coming out of a World War II Army hitch, Knight enrolled at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. He studied to be a pastor but also reconnected with journalism through the student newspaper.
Ultimately, said Lee, “He saw himself more as a writer than as a preacher.”
After college, he went to Dallas, writing for and editing a Texas-based Southern Baptist denominational newspaper. He took his family to Georgia in 1960, working more than two decades as directing the Southern Baptist Convention’s Baptist Home Missions Board magazine.
Driven by empathy for people on the margins, Knight recruited Lee and other budding journalists to focus on social issues — poverty, hunger, civil rights and racism. His staffers roamed far and wide from the inner city to the Texas-Mexico border to dig up stories, spotlight civil rights leaders. That coverage was unheard of in an era when faith journalism shied away from such topics, but it earned Knight the ire of some higher ups.
Lee and Jill Knight said some of his superiors were intensely critical. Knight himself wrote in a memoir that a top mission board official thundered at him that “I was threatening the income of the agency with my editorials and coverage of issues related to black Americans.”
But Knight’s advocates helped him remain in his editorial perch despite canceled subscriptions and attempts to fire him, they said. Over time, his editorial emphasis was widely adopted by other religion journalists at denominational publications.
Jill Knight recalled her dad’s activist philosophy playing out in ways other than on the printed page. He struck up a conversation with a man of color at a bus stop one time after stopping to inquire if he needed a ride.
“(Dad) found out that he was unable to get a job in construction because he couldn’t afford a pair of steel-toed shoes,” she said. Knight promptly loaned him the money.
Knight also made his mark during 60 years at Oakhurst Baptist Church in Decatur, said retired pastor John Nichol. As whites left intown neighborhoods African-Americans moved into the largely-white Oakhurst neighborhood in the 1960s and 1970s. Hundreds of members left, and officials wrestled with the idea of hightailing it to the suburbs. He said Knight, a deacon, opposed the move saying, “ We don’t have a choice. Our integrity is at stake. There’s no way we can claim we have integrity and not open the doors to all who want to come.”
The congregation stayed put to minister to the changed community through programs targeting homelessness and addiction. It went against some Southern Baptist stances, welcoming women as ministers and gays and lesbians as valued members. The approach cost the church its membership in the Southern Baptist Convention.
Knight himself eased away from the denomination, leaving in 1982 after becoming increasingly concerned with the SBC’s conservative drift. His helped found an alternative publication, SBC Today, which covered the denomination from an independent perch. In 1987 he helped launch the Alliance of Baptists, a more progressive-tilting association of congregations.
Family members said Knight’s go-after-it approach extended to fierce competition in golf, tennis and chess. And he published several books, one of which contained a poem opining that “Peace, like war, must be waged.”
Then-President Jimmy Carter borrowed it during remarks at the signing of the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty.
Oakhurst’s current pastor, Melanie Vaughn-West echoed that sentiment in writing that Knight was “a gentle and courageous crusader, a minister and a journalist who lived his life waging peace.”
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.