Walker was born in Eatonton, Georgia, the youngest of eight children, to Willie Lee Walker and Minnie Lou Tallulah Grant. Her father, who was, in her words, "wonderful at math but a terrible farmer," earned only $300 a year from sharecropping and dairy farming. Her mother supplemented the family income by working as a maid.She worked 11 hours a day for USD $17 per week to help pay for Alice to attend college.
Living under Jim Crow Laws, Walker's parents resisted landlords who expected the children of black sharecroppers to work the fields at a young age. A white plantation owner said to her that black people had “no need for education.” Minnie Lou Walker said, "You might have some black children somewhere, but they don’t live in this house. Don’t you ever come around here again talking about how my children don’t need to learn how to read and write.” Her mother enrolled Alice in first grade at the age of four.
Growing up with an oral tradition, listening to stories from her grandfather (the model for the character of Mr. in The Color Purple), Walker began writing, very privately, when she was eight years old. "With my family, I had to hide things," she said. "And I had to keep a lot in my mind."
In 1952, Walker was accidentally wounded in the right eye by a shot from a BB gun fired by one of her brothers. Because the family had no car, the Walkers could not take their daughter to a hospital for immediate treatment. By the time they reached a doctor a week later, she had become permanently blind in that eye. When a layer of scar tissue formed over her wounded eye, Alice became self-conscious and painfully shy. Stared at and sometimes taunted, she felt like an outcast and turned for solace to reading and to writing poetry. When she was 14, the scar tissue was removed. She later became valedictorian and was voted most-popular girl, as well as queen of her senior class, but she realized that her traumatic injury had some value: it allowed her to begin "really to see people and things, really to notice relationships and to learn to be patient enough to care about how they turned out".
After high school, Walker went to Spelman College in Atlanta on a full scholarship in 1961 and later transferred to Sarah Lawrence College near New York City, graduating in 1965. Walker became interested in the U.S. civil rights movement in part due to the influence of activist Howard Zinn, who was one of her professors at Spelman College. Continuing the activism that she participated in during her college years, Walker returned to the South where she became involved with voter registration drives, campaigns for welfare rights, and children's programs in Mississippi.
Alice Walker met Martin Luther King Jr. when she was a student at Spelman College in Atlanta in the early 1960s. Walker credits King for her decision to return to the American South as an activist for the Civil Rights Movement. She marched with hundreds of thousands in August in the 1963 March on Washington. As a young adult, she volunteered to register black voters in Georgia and Mississippi.
On March 8, 2003, International Women's Day, on the eve of the Iraq War, Alice Walker, Maxine Hong Kingston, author of The Woman Warrior; and Terry Tempest Williams, author of An Unspoken Hunger; were arrested along with 24 others for crossing a police line during an anti-war protest rally outside the White House with her dogs. Walker and 5,000 activists associated with the organizations Code Pink and Women for Peace, marched from Malcolm X Park in Washington D.C. to the White House. The activists encircled the White House. In an interview with Democracy Now, Walker said, "I was with other women who believe that the women and children of Iraq are just as dear as the women and children in our families, and that, in fact, we are one family. And so it would have felt to me that we were going over to actually bomb ourselves." Walker wrote about the experience in her essay, "We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For."
In November 2008, Alice Walker wrote "An Open Letter to Barack Obama" that was published on Theroot.com. Walker addresses the newly elected President as "Brother Obama" and writes "Seeing you take your rightful place, based solely on your wisdom, stamina, and character, is a balm for the weary warriors of hope, previously only sung about."
In January 2009, she was one of over 50 signers of a letter protesting the Toronto Film Festival's "City to City" spotlight on Israeli filmmakers, condemning Israel as an "apartheid regime."
In March 2009, Alice Walker traveled to Gaza along with a group of 60 other female activists from the anti-war group Code Pink, in response to the Gaza War. Their purpose was to deliver aid, to meet with NGOs and residents, and to persuade Israel and Egypt to open their borders into Gaza. She planned to visit Gaza again in December 2009 to participate in the Gaza Freedom March. On Jun 23, 2011, she announced plans to participate in an upcoming aid flotilla to Gaza which is attempting to break Israel's naval blockade. Explaining her reasons she cited concern for the children and that she felt that "elders" should bring "whatever understanding and wisdom we might have gained in our fairly long lifetimes, witnessing and being a part of struggles against oppression". Fellow author Howard Jacobson took Walker to task saying that her concern for the children does not justify the flotilla.
In a June 2011 interview, Walker described the United States and Israel as "terrorist organizations" stating "When you terrorize people, when you make them so afraid of you that they are just mentally and psychologically wounded for life -- that's terrorism."
In 1965, Walker met Melvyn Roseman Leventhal, a Jewish civil rights lawyer. They were married on March 17, 1967 in New York City. Later that year the couple relocated to Jackson, Mississippi, becoming "the first legally married inter-racial couple in Mississippi". They were harassed and threatened by whites, including the Ku Klux Klan. The couple had a daughter Rebecca in 1969. Walker described her in 2008 as "a living, breathing, mixed-race embodiment of the new America that they were trying to forge." Walker and her husband divorced amicably in 1976.
Walker and her daughter became estranged. Rebecca felt herself to be more of "a political symbol... than a cherished daughter". She published a memoir entitled Black White and Jewish, expressing the complexities of her parents' relationship and her childhood. Rebecca recalls her teenage years when her mother would retreat to her far-off writing studio while “I was left with money to buy my own meals and lived on a diet of fast food.” Since the birth of Rebecca’s son Tenzin, her mother has not spoken to her because she dared to “question her ideology.” Rebecca has learned that she was cut out of her mother’s will in favor of a distant cousin.
In the mid-1990s, Walker was involved in a romance with singer-songwriter Tracy Chapman.
In 2011 shooting began on Beauty in Truth, a documentary film about Walker's life directed by Pratibha Parmar.
Walker's first book of poetry was written while she was a senior at Sarah Lawrence. She took a brief sabbatical from writing while working in Mississippi in the civil rights movement. Walker resumed her writing career when she joined Ms. magazine as an editor before moving to northern California in the late 1970s. Her 1975 article, In Search of Zora Neale Hurston, published on Ms Magazine, helped revive interest in the work of Zora Neale Hurston, who inspired Walker's writing and subject matter. In 1973, Walker and fellow Hurston scholar Charlotte D. Hunt discovered Hurston's unmarked grave in Ft. Pierce, Florida. The women collaborated to buy a modest headstone for the gravesite.
In addition to her collected short stories and poetry, Walker's first novel, The Third Life of Grange Copeland, was published in 1970. In 1976, Walker's second novel, Meridian, was published. The novel dealt with activist workers in the South during the civil rights movement, and closely paralleled some of Walker's own experiences.
In 1982, Walker published what has become her best-known work, the novel The Color Purple. About a young troubled black woman fighting her way through not only racist white culture but also patriarchal black culture, it was a resounding commercial success. The book became a bestseller and was subsequently adapted into a critically acclaimed 1985 movie as well as a 2005 Broadway musical.
Walker has written several other novels, including The Temple of My Familiar and Possessing the Secret of Joy (which featured several characters and descendants of characters from The Color Purple). She has published a number of collections of short stories, poetry, and other published work. She expresses the struggles of black people, particularly women, and their lives in a racist, sexist, and violent society. Her writings also focus on the role of women of color in culture and history. Walker is a respected figure in the liberal political community for her support of unconventional and unpopular views as a matter of principle.
Her short stories include the 1973 Everyday Use, in which she discusses feminism, racism and the issues raised by young black people who leave home and lose respect for their parents' culture.
In 2007, Walker gave her papers, 122 boxes of manuscripts and archive material, to Emory University's Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library. In addition to drafts of novels such as The Color Purple, unpublished poems and manuscripts, and correspondence with editors, the collection includes extensive correspondence with family members, friends and colleagues, an early treatment of the film script for The Color Purple, syllabi from courses she taught, and fan mail. The collection also contains a scrapbook of poetry compiled when Walker was 15, entitled "Poems of a Childhood Poetess".
Selected awards and honors
Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (1983) for The Color Purple
National Book Award for Fiction (1983) for The Color Purple
O. Henry Award for "Kindred Spirits" 1985.
Honorary Degree from the California Institute of the Arts (1995)
American Humanist Association named her as "Humanist of the Year" (1997)
The Lillian Smith Award from the National Endowment for the Arts
The Rosenthal Award from the National Institute of Arts & Letters
The Radcliffe Institute Fellowship, the Merrill Fellowship, and a Guggenheim Fellowship
The Front Page Award for Best Magazine Criticism from the Newswoman's Club of New York
Induction to the California Hall of Fame in The California Museum for History, Women, and the Arts (2006)
Domestic Human Rights Award from Global Exchange (2007)