The menace and violence continued. In mid-April, two Klansmen sprayed shotgun shells at a Black family’s mobile home, wounding a 9-year-old girl. One especially contentious night in May, Attaway and his deputies raided churches and homes and arrested largely without warrants or charges more than three dozen people — among them Wilson, Martin and another SCLC staffer. “Somebody’s going to get killed,” a young Black person told a reporter from the Associated Press. “I’ll tell you how it’s going to end,” predicted a middle-aged man who was white. “One day, 15 of these Blacks are going to get killed, and it will be over.”
Throughout these tense, terrifying weeks and months, according to subsequent reporting in national newspapers and magazines, Black schoolmates, demonstrators, organizers and more leaned on Walker. “Demanded he join,” said the New York Times. “Pleaded,” as the Atlanta Constitution put it. “Coretta King and Jesse Jackson were calling Herschel,” Gary Smith wrote in the fall of 1981 in Inside Sports, “trying to get him to take a stand.” (A spokesperson for Jackson confirmed this to me.)
Others his age had. That spring, Jordan told me, half a dozen Black athletes on the track team quit as a form of protest. Not Herschel Walker. He didn’t do or say anything else, either — just like, it should be said, the vast majority of the 3,000 or so Black residents of Johnson County. None of all those others, though, of course, was a Georgia-bound football star. Walker reeled. He told Phillips and Jordan, his football and track coaches, he wanted to all but disappear by joining the Marines, according to the reporting of Prugh, who wrote the biography of Walker from 1983. “Tom and I told him, ‘Hey, there’s no way you’ll do that!’” Phillips said. “We said, ‘We’ll help you get through this. We’ll do something to get these people to leave you alone. Remember, we can do certain things with whites, anyway.’”
“One day he told me, ‘My friends won’t even talk to me because I won’t get involved in the protests,” Jordan told Gary Smith in 1981. “He said there were blacks threatening to kill him because he wouldn’t march and whites threatening to kill him because he was black.” When we talked last month, Jordan recalled how much that had hurt Walker. “Hurt him bad,” he said.
Hurt as he was, Walker’s stance came as a comfort to many in the white community who lauded his choice.
“Why can’t they all be like Herschel Walker?” That’s what some white people here said about Black people here, Prugh wrote. “We followed him. We looked up to him,” Buck Evinger, a white football teammate, told the biographer. “The fact that he stayed neutral helped the situation a lot.”
Not to his Black peers it didn’t. “Kids were calling him honky-lover, saying he hung around with more white people than Black,” Milt Moorman, a Black football teammate, told Smith. “If you hang around a lot of white people,” Moorman told me last month, “they start saying things.”
“He was a smart kid,” Jimmy Moore, who was a white assistant football coach, told me, “and he saw through some of the stuff that was going on. That was — I mean, I don’t know how to phrase this — manufactured maybe a little, exaggerated just a little bit. There was some strife — I mean, there’s strife everywhere — but there’s no need to go about that in that particular way.”
“He had a future, a bright future,” Curtis Dixon, who was a black assistant football coach, told me, “and he didn’t want to mess it up.”
“The family was focused on other things,” Phillips said of the Walkers. “They were not going to get embroiled in that.”
“He had a lot of pressure as a Black man from a lot of fairly powerful people in the community there, wanting him to kind of take a position,” Evinger told me. “But his position was kind of common sense: ‘I don’t really know what I think about the situation, and I’m not a spokesperson for anybody, so I’m not sure what you want me to do other than lend my name to your cause …’”
“He was all about the hate,” Caneega, who taught Walker geometry, said of E.J. Wilson, the Black pastor who was one of the leaders of the protests. “And I can’t see that he would have ever been interested in Herschel other than using him.”
She added: “I don’t think he backed away. I think he just navigated it in a very wise and thoughtful way.”
And on May 30, the most famous person ever to attend Johnson County High School graduated, one of only 12 seniors to have maintained an “A” average all four years, according to the coverage of the ceremony in the Courier Herald. Walker was one of two Black students on the 10-person Honor Guard — sort of school spirit reps. He was the only Black student among the five officers of the Beta Club. Part of the Walker lore that has hardened over the years is that he was the valedictorian, but Dixon, one of the assistant football coaches, who also taught Walker social studies, expressed to me some amusement at that, pointing out that the school didn’t name valedictorians until 1994. But Walker was, Dixon and others agreed, a very capable student — not necessarily brilliant but without a doubt diligent. And the “Citizen-Leadership Award” Walker won, the newspaper said, was given to a student who not only earned good grades but “exhibits character and leadership qualities” and participates in “social and community activities.”
The local push for racial justice, though, raged on without him. Wilson, Martin and others organized voter registration drives. They prepared a class-action lawsuit against Attaway and other local lawmen. They kept marching in and around Wrightsville.
During a march through Dublin the first week of June, Hosea Williams, the veteran civil rights activist and state senator from Atlanta, mentioned Walker. Many of the white people who knew Walker the best had seen his decision as one of pragmatic and prudent neutrality, but that’s not what some Black people saw.
White people in Wrightsville, Williams said, had made Walker an “Uncle Tom.”
“What Herschel Walker doesn’t understand is that when he stops carrying that football,” Williams said, “he has to return to the Black community.”
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