In May, Sheriff Attaway and his deputies, guns drawn and bracing for a riot, rolled down South Valley Street into a Black neighborhood where Mr. Wilson’s red brick church still stands. They went door to door, arresting and jailing about 40 people, some for days, most without charges.
Mr. Walker never got involved.
“I’d like to think I had something to do with it,” said Gary Jordan, a white man who coached Mr. Walker in track and football, starting when Mr. Walker was in fifth grade. “I said, ‘You can’t get into shape marching. You’ve got to run. And practice is at 3.’”
Mr. Walker had several other white mentors in town, including an owner of a service station where Mr. Walker worked and a farmer who had employed his parents. Another was a math teacher, Jeanette Caneega.
“As a student in school, his role in society was not to solve the racial problems of the world,” she said this summer.
“I don’t want to be divisive,” Gary Phillips, Mr. Walker’s high-school football coach, who is white, said, “but as an 18-year-old Black kid in Wrightsville with a lot of pressure on him, can you see how or why he might have decided that this is not the best thing for me, to start getting into this?”
Mr. Walker soon left Wrightsville and rarely spoke about the episode. He declined to be interviewed for this article. In college, when he was asked by a reporter about the friction back home, Mr. Walker said that he was “too young” and “didn’t want to get involved in something I didn’t know much about.”
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In a memoir published decades later, Mr. Walker only briefly noted the conflict. But he described a school confrontation between a Black student and the white principal the year before.