The Fight for Civil Rights in Britain and America
Dennis Walker is not a name many are familiar with. Especially with regards to the fight for racial, religious, and cultural equality. However, in the 1950’s and 60’s Walker was a quiet leader in the fight for equality in sports. His story is that of a typical man of color in a time period filled with hate and prejudice.
The year was 1963.
Alabama Governor, George Wallace gave a speech in January where he outlines his “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” policy.
Women were entrenched in the Woman’s Liberation Movement for equal rights.
The IRA was fighting for Irish independence.
Catholics and the Protestants all over Britain were engulfed in religious civil war.
Not to mention the Cold War was well on its way.
In response to these actions the British government came close to declaring martial law in Ireland. Falling just short of this they sent British troops to the Emerald Isle, to help restore order.
Stateside, a quarter of a million people marched on Washington DC in support of the civil rights movement. This march ultimately culminated in the famous Martin Luther King ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.
In a step forward for women’s rights, the Equal Pay Act was passed. This guaranteed all people equitable wages for the same work, irrespective of gender, race, color, religion or national origin.
Lets also not forget the Cuban Missile Crisis had only just ensued.
Plainly put, the fight for equality and the preservation of democracy all over the world was at a fever pitch.
Dennis Walker, Born into a World of Turmoil
In spite of this horrific period in history, Manchester United was one of few professional teams in Britain willing to set aside race relations and see a player for his talent and potential.
Enter Dennis Walker.
Walker’s father is still mostly a mystery, as he passed away before Walker was born. He was a native African who was taken to the Persian Gulf as a slave. It wasn’t until 1929 that Iran and the rest of the Persian Gulf outlawed slavery. Through secondhand stories from his mother, told by his daughter, Walker’s father also fought during World War II after leaving Iran. He served as a seaman and most likely perished in battle.
His mother was a white Irish-Catholic woman dealing with her own stigma. She was a woman in a time before gender equality was even a genuine notion. She married a black man. And she was a catholic in a country violently struggling for religious identity and independence.
A True Citizen of the World
Since his mother was Irish-Catholic and his father Afro-Iranian, Walker was engulfed in all these stigmas simultaneously.
He was born on October 26, 1944, in Northwich, Cheshire England to a then single mother. Though Dennis would describe himself as Iranian/Argentinian, later genealogy reports from his daughter confirms his deep African heritage. A genuine international man of mystery, Walker also spoke Arabic and Farsi fluently, mostly down to his Iranian heritage.
Walker was scouted for his footballing abilities at the tender age of 12 by Manchester United. He was immediately invited to join United’s fabled youth academy. He excelled in his development at The Cliff. By the age of 19 he was well on his way to his first team debut. At the time there were only four other black professional players in England’s topflight.
A Busby Babe
Dennis Walker was also the only black Busby Babe. Fortunately, he was still a youth player at the time of the Munich disaster, and was not on the plane. After the disaster Walker had become part of the second wave of Babes that Sir Matt enlisted to reboot Manchester United.
He should have been the first black man to represent England, when he was recruited to the U15 team. However, he had just signed a contract with United, which violated the rules for youth players representing their country. The invitation was withdrawn in fitting with league regulations. Sadly, he never again got the chance to play for the Three Lions.
He signed his first fulltime contract as a footballer in 1961 with United. Unfortunately, Walker would have to wait until the 62/63 season to make his first team debut. Moreover, it wasn’t until the spring of 1963 against Nottingham Forest that Walker made his full debut for United.
A Legend Recognized for his Ethnicity Not his Trophy Cabinet.
It was the last game of the domestic season on May 20, 1963, where Manchester United played Nottingham Forest. United were prepping for an FA Cup final the following weekend. At that point in the season, United was well behind in the title race.
Sir Matt did not want to risk his key players in a dead-rubber match with an FA Cup final looming. Busby made wholesale changes to the lineup in an attempt to preserve his star players. Walker got his chance, deputizing for Bobby Charlton losing the game 3-2. The following weekend we went on to win the FA cup final 3-1 in emphatic style against Leicester. Busby’s decision was seen as a success.
There is little on record about Walker’s performances with United, that includes this game. But, his status as a legend was preserved the second he stepped out on the pitch against Forest.
Walker continued to fulfil a periphery roll at United following that day against Nottingham. He struggled to leapfrog the likes of Dennis Law, George Best and Bobby Charlton in the attacking lineup. As anyone would.
United let him go a year later in 1964, months before he was due to be married. He continued on to play 169 times for the fourth division side, York. In 1968 he moved to Southern League side, Cambridge United. He captained Cambridge to the league championship and the league cup in his first season. In his time in Cambridgeshire he scored 23 goals in 202 games for the U’s. Eventually he moved to NASL side Montreal Olympique in 1971 for a single season before retiring.
Dennis Walker vs Sir Matt Busby
Part in parcel of the times, even at Manchester United, Walker was not devoid of racial abuse from his own team. There are even reports that Sir Matt Busby himself stigmatized Walker for his race. This includes open accounts of Busby referring to Walker in racially abusive language.
One account of such abuse included several petty thefts that had taken place in the United dressing room. Busby had decided to confront the team about the thefts. In his address to the team he had indicated that because Walker was black, that he was a likely suspect. This racially charged verbal abuse was grievously philistine at the time. Though that doesn’t excuse even the great Sir Matt Busby from observing another race as lesser than.
Ever the humble man, Walker ignored this stigma and simply got on with the game. He preferred the approach of allowing his work ethic, mentality and intelligence speak for him. Sadly, these traits were regularly overlooked, because of the color of his skin.
The only thing that would have fleeced Walker even more would have been him being a woman. This made Walker not just United’s first black player, but a pioneer for black athletes as a whole.
Dennis Walker vs the IRA
Following his retirement from football, Dennis Walker became an operations manager at the Arndale Shopping Centre in Manchester. However, his story most certainly doesn’t end with football and retail. In 1996 the IRA were becoming increasingly militant. On June 15, 1996 they threatened to detonate a 3,300-pound bomb at the Arndale Shopping Centre while Walker was on duty.
Early in the day, Dennis received a phone call threatening a bomb hidden in the center. Though, because such calls were unfortunate commonplace at the time Walker’s superiors deemed the threat a hoax. They were more concerned with the disruption and financial loss of evacuating the Centre and ignored the call. Walker, unconvinced of the triviality of the threat, took it upon himself to evacuate the entire shopping complex.
His efforts weren’t in vain. As if taken straight from a movie, only seconds after ensuring the last person had been evacuated the worst happened. There was a bomb and it detonated. Walker was the last man out. The blast hurled him through the window of a shop across the street. Luckily he escape unscathed.
Over 250 bystanders and pedestrians were injured when the bomb exploded. Had it not been for his definitive actions, the death and injury toll would have been far more substantial. Fortunately, the same humility, intuition and intelligence he showed at United had not escaped him. He became a hero to thousands of people that day and re-endeared himself to all Manchester United fans.
Sadly, Walker never got the recognition he deserved. History tends to forget the little guy.
The man originally credited as the first black player for Manchester United was Tony Whelan. Though he debuted six years after Walker. Moreover, Whelan never actually played a game for United. Moreover, it was Tony himself that identified Walker as Manchester United’s first black player. And a Busby Babe to boot.
Thanks to Whelan, Dennis Walker became a Manchester United legend. Though not because of his performances on the pitch. Rather, because of his bravery as a black athlete in a time when life was not kind to people like him
Dennis became a hero because his bravery and instincts saved countless lives on an unassuming Saturday in June. Most people would have followed the orders of their superiors. Dennis Walker broke from his chain of command to do what was right. Walker knew it was better to be wrong and get fired then it was to be right and do nothing at all.
Tragically, seven years later in 2003, Walker fell victim to a substantial stroke. He was never again able to use the entire right side of his body. Unable to recover from his stroke, he passed away in August of 2003 at the age of 59.
It wasn’t until a further 17 years later in 2020 that Walker would finally receive the recognition he deserved. Again in large part thanks to Tony Whelan. It took more than 50 years and an escalation in current race relations to unveil this important moment in United history. A fact that I, as a United fan, am wholly ashamed of.
An All Too Typical Story
His is a story fraught with racial stigma that is all too familiar still to this day. It didn’t matter that he was a father, a husband, a world traveler, an accomplished linguist, a professional athlete or that he saved so many people’s lives. It only mattered the color of his skin.
Had he been white we’d be talking about him in the same context as Harry Gregg or Sir Bobby Charlton. A truly sad notion. His life is only one of countless examples of racism across sports.
Walker’s name should be held in the same esteem as Diggs Stowe, Moses Walker, Jackie Robinson, Arthur Wharton, Jack Johnson (the boxer not the musician), John Taylor, Fitz Pollard, Ernie Davis, Bill Russell, Tiger Woods, Venus and Serena Williams, Art Shell, Alice Coachman, Wayne Embry and Bobby Marshall.
If some of those names don’t ring a bell, please look them up. They are all truly inspirational figures in the fight for equality in sports.
A pavement plaque in Manchester is being prepared to commemorate his heroics and courage as this is being written. Hopefully this will go some way in helping future generations to remember his legacy. There is solace in the fact that if history continues to forget Dennis Walker, United fans will never let his legend die.
Glory, Glory Man United
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