Local history: Walker urged ‘cooperative action’ in Chattanooga mayoral bid

Contributed photo / Robert Kirk Walker campaigned for a "united Chattanooga" and progress for all citizens.
Contributed photo / Robert Kirk Walker campaigned for a "united Chattanooga" and progress for all citizens.

(Editor's note: Second of two parts)

On Jan. 9, 1971, Chattanooga attorney Robert Kirk Walker announced his candidacy for mayor: "I extend the call to every citizen to join me in a united campaign to build a greater Chattanooga. With a spirit of mutual understanding and trust, progress is certain. Whether rich or poor, black or white, Democrat, Republican or Independent, Catholic, Jew or Protestant, the times demand intelligent, cooperative action."

In the 25 years since his return from the U.S. Navy during World War II, briefly interrupted by a return to the military during the Korean conflict, Walker had gained the respect and recognition of Chattanooga's leaders and its citizens. He had been honored by the Chattanooga Education Association as its "Citizen of the Year," with the Boy Scouts' Silver Beaver Award, and by Sertoma International with its "Service to Mankind" Award. During the same years, the Chattanooga Realtors presented him with its Citizenship Award, while his "eloquent addresses on our nation's heritage of liberty" resulted in four major awards from Freedoms Foundation.

Professionally, he was elected president of the Chattanooga Bar Association in 1962. Three years later, he took the helm of the Tennessee Bar Association, which praised his "leadership in modernization of court systems and improvement of the administration of Justice."

A partner in the law firm of Strang, Fletcher, Carriger, Walker and Hodge, the future mayor fought for "educational opportunity for Chattanoogans of all races." As the chairman of the special four-year state college committee and chairman of the educational task force, he was credited with bringing the "University of Tennessee to Chattanooga" and orchestrating the "merger of Chattanooga City College with the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga." At the same time, he worked to establish a vocational-technical school and obtain approval for a major expansion of Chattanooga State Technical Institute's facilities, allowing it to double its enrollment.

Building upon his record and acknowledging the need for strong leadership during a difficult time in the nation's history, Walker explained why he felt called to serve as mayor: "I am convinced, deeply convinced, that the struggle for preservation of our American way of life will be won or lost in our cities." At age 45, Robert Kirk Walker believed he was prepared to lead the fight, and only months later the citizens of Chattanooga voted their agreement.

In 1972, Springer Gibson, writing for The Chattanooga Times, offered his assessment of Walker's first year in office: "We have learned that he is energetic, thorough, and a hard-headed leader once he has decided the direction in which he wants to go ... . We learned that he would not flinch from rough responsibilities when racial violence broke over the city last May ... . We learned that he is willing to broaden his base of responsibility when he spearheaded the mass annexation which has brought 10 areas and 31,000 people into the city ... ." Interestingly, Gibson noted that Walker was neither liberal or conservative; instead, the mayor appeared to be guided only by his belief in the city's best interests, even when those beliefs might be deemed controversial.

Walker, a member of the board of deacons at Central Baptist Church, led the move to remove the Sunday closing law, opening the sale of restricted items after 1 p.m. He supported Chattanooga's participation in the Model Cities program, promoted the Orchard Knob urban renewal plan, helped develop a concentrated employment program, and solicited federal funds for a designated "clean up of polluted streams."

In a move that gained the mayor both supporters and detractors, he advocated a replacement of the "mayor-commission form of government," which he deemed to be antiquated. "We need a 1972 Oldsmobile charter, not a Stutz-Bearcat, which is what we've got." His solution was an elected mayor and city council. Walker also promoted "tough new air-pollution control laws," the need for a new public library for the downtown area, and an "expressway across the Tennessee River." He dealt with flooding, a downtown explosion, and the unrest associated with the early 1970s but never lost focus on his goals to improve opportunities for all citizens.

Walker served only one term before returning to his legal practice but propelled Chattanooga into a broader conversation. He served as vice president of the Tennessee Municipal League, gained recognition for the development of a "computerized" urban management information system and was named chairman of the Tennessee Local Government Study Commission.

It may have been "one and done," but it was done well.

Linda Moss Mines is the Chattanooga-Hamilton County historian. For more on Local History visit Chattahistoricalassoc.org.