I leave today for an extended trip. I won’t be on the ground for news for several weeks including potentially momentous developments in the Pulaski County desegregation case next week. I write Saturday morning, Nov. 16. Events may render the following irrelevant.
The state of Arkansas has been in court for three decades over its role in contributing to segregation in Pulaski County‘s three public school districts. It has spent more than $1 billion in reparations as a result of a 1989 agreement.
Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, in perhaps his crowning achievement as the state’s chief legal officer, has very nearly achieved a miracle — “global” agreement on a deal that would end the litigation. The state would agree to make an additional $260 million in incentive payments over four years to the three districts. All lawsuits would end. These include a challenge to the proliferation of charter schools that will in time create dozens of independent school districts in Pulaski County, nearly all segregated either racially or economically.
McDaniel has even won acquiescence from the now-dominant Republican Party’s legislators to a quarter-billion in spending. He’s persuaded them that finality and the promise of future freed money is better than eternal struggle. All three school districts agree. The governor is on board.
Then there’s John Walker, the 76-year-old civil rights lawyer and state representative who’s toiled on the side of black children in Pulaski County for better than a half-century. As of Friday, he wouldn’t agree to the deal, though many incentives had been offered to him.
I know John Walker. I knew him when he worked alone and virtually for free in defense of equality for black people. Another of Hope’s famous native sons, he knows the lash of discrimination — of segregated schools, of denial of entrance to a white university. He knows, as I do (because I wrote a page one story as a cub reporter for the Arkansas Gazette in 1973) that it was a full 16 years after the desegregation of Central High School by force of federal troops before Little Rock fully desegregated its elementary schools.
(Continue to the next page for much more of my thoughts as I contemplate a man and a case that I’ve been bound up in since arriving in Little Rock in January 1973.)
Walker is a proud and complicated man. He eventually was awarded a significant sum for years of unpaid representation of black people in his fight against state-supported segregation in Little Rock. The $2 million wasn’t only for John Walker, of course, but other lawyers, support staff and experts. The fees also support a legal operation that does much more than fight the state and employers who discriminate. It organizes. It politics. It provides comfort to the hopeless — not all of them black.
Like Walker himself, my feelings about John are complicated.. Many years ago, he stood in the way of an important appointment for my wife. I don’t think it was personal. He’d once offered her a job and her parents were in the coterie of Little Rock liberals who stood with John Walker at a time when the fight for equality had only just begun. Walker had another candidate. That’s politics. Walker has periodically talked of suing my employers for our results in hiring minorities. (I don’t think he ever had a legal case, but he was right about our lackluster record.) Walker is human in many other respects. He appreciates the things money can buy. He loves power. He’d like to run the Little Rock School District and, depending on the board and superintendents, sometimes he does. He procrastinates. In part because he often spread himself too thin, he could be unprepared. He often wings it on his immense intellect rather than efficient time management and preparation.
If I’m not a cheerleader, I’ve never been able to find it in my heart to make John Walker the demon he is to so many white people in Little Rock and Arkansas. He called himself the “heavy” in a legislative hearing Friday. He is a sum of many things, but when he fights in the school case I think he still fights, in the main, for black children. I think he speaks for them — and the facts certainly do — when he says 30 years and $1 billion haven’t given black children equal opportunity or achievement.
So I understand — in part because of urging from longtime litigation partners who don’t live here — why he could see settling the desegregation lawsuit is not the proper course for a representative of the poor and black and largely voiceless thousands in Pulaski County, Arkansas. I understand — though I think he’s wrong to oppose it — why he hates to see a new middle school built in western Little Rock to serve the affluent upscale white neighborhoods there.
I certainly understand why he’s tried so hard to wring benefits for black children from the Pulaski County Special School District. It alone of the three public school districts is not “unitary,” or desegregated. It was a bad actor for years, a white-flight and ungainly district — harmed itself in recent years by exurban growth. It disciplined black kids more often. It deemed black children more often as special ed material. It found white students far more likely to be gifted. It built cathedrals of learning in comfortable white middle class enclaves like Maumelle while it left the black areas of southeastern Pulaski County to rot.
The best best thing that ever happened to the Pulaski County School District was its failure and state trusteeship. Education Director Tom Kimbrell picked his friend Jerry Guess of Camden to run it. It was an inspired choice. Guess negotiated the difficult shoals of race at his old school district. He has a savvy veteran lawyer in Allen Roberts who can work with John Walker. Guess will make the Pulaski district solvent and competent. But he has also worked with Walker on a settlement idea to help black kids aiming for college and to provide scholarship help for those not yet able to qualify on ACT scores for the normal state scholarship program. Pulaski would create a $30 million fund for the purpose.
Dustin McDaniel, among other masterful handling of the negotiations, has paid court — publicly and richly — to Walker. He’s tried to downplay legal fees — the red flag the people who despise Walker always love to wave. McDaniel has made Walker the “prevailing party” in the settlement, a status that should qualify him for significant fees from the reviewing federal judge. McDaniel is more empathetic than just about any major politician in Arkansas today about the wants and needs of black people. He’s not Bill Clinton, but he’s the closest we’ve got. It is a shame a Clinton-like personal misstep pushed him out of the 2014 gubernatorial race. He would have been a formidable candidate.
McDaniel is now frustrated. Two days running, he thought John Walker was on board. Two days running, John Walker backed away from the deal at the last minute. McDaniel says he can win court release from the deseg case without Walker. The legislature gave him authority to try.
I don’t think this is realistic and I think if you could get Dustin McDaniel alone in a confessional, he would agree. For all its current good intentions, Pulaski County is not yet “unitary.” Its facilities aren’t equal. Yes, it has plans. But, even with new leadership, a careful federal judge might want more than promises before releasing the district from court supervision, particularly if civil rights lion John Walker stands at the lectern to object.
Walker told me Friday afternoon that he was still open to a settlement. He won’t fall on a sword over a middle school for western Little Rock, for one thing. The idealist Walker is a pragmatist. Without that west Little Rock middle school as a lure to white voters, a millage for facilities district-wide is doomed. But he still hears the urging of others on his team that a settlement forsakes the people he represents. They’ll get a few more dollars but still be a long way from equal.
Walker wished me a good trip when we last spoke. I wished him good luck. I’m sorry now that I didn’t throw off my journalist’s hat and give him this exhortation:
Join the settlement, Lawyer Walker. The tattered remnants of this litigation won’t bring full equality to your clients any more than the last 30 years did.
I do stand in a small number that thinks three decades of litigation have brought more good than ill to Pulaski County. White flight has damaged the schools, but Little Rock remains almost alone among major Southern cities with a public school system that still attracts a significant number of white children. It has unequaled academic programs. If there was a better program elsewhere for high-achieving students, my kids would have been in them. But they both graduated from Central High School and I never regretted a decision to put them in Gibbs, Dunbar and Central over a cumulative 25 years in Little Rock schools.
The litigation has run its course. I think Pulaski County is on the verge of meeting desegregation requirements. I wish Jerry Guess could be lord of all our school districts, to tell the truth. I never thought the litigation was the detriment to education that critics said, but the perception became close to reality. The federal courts have far less patience with desegregation cases now. Little Rock is a special case, on account of history, but judges have made it clear that their patience is wearing thin. The end is nearly at hand, by settlement or by their edict.
The public tide has turned, too. A richly funded campaign by billionaires, particularly the Walton family fortune, has eroded the American ideal of universal, equal public education. Now, it is every man for himself. Why, they say, shouldn’t a parent be able to take his or her share of public dollars to a school — charter or private — in a neighborhood where their children can be with children like theirs? “Like theirs” does not necessarily mean skin color, but also economic status and other markers.
I wish we were all in it together in a single school district with singular standards and goals, but we no longer are. Continuing the fight of the school case diverts attention from the real fight — preservation of an egalitarian education system. At 76, Walker would still be my first pick for a sandlot equality team.
Walker’s reluctance to settle might be about a loss of control. As a significant party to continuing litigation, he had a seat at the table on decisions large and small. Settlement makes the three districts no different in the regulatory sphere than Eudora, Imboden or Berryville. History will always demand more in Pulaski County, however. And who better to explain that from the sidelines than someone with Walker’s institutional memory? A lawsuit settlement won’t keep him out of the hair of the Little Rock school administration.
By resisting a settlement, Walker helps enemies of his dream of a shared educational experience by children of all colors and stations. He can again be blamed as the villain by those happy to see his dream die.
I think he should take the settlement. I think the districts should prepare to end their added sustenance from the state. I think they should continue to demonstrate that they are about kids, not lawsuits. I believe — though I may be in a minority — that John Walker believes this too. Always has. He can demonstrate it by joining in what Dustin McDaniel had hoped twice this week would be a ‘glorious moment” of togetherness in the interest of children.
I’ll be watching the Internet from afar. I don’t think for a minute Attorney Walker will be influenced by what I write. But we’ve always been direct about our opinions. I wanted to put mine on the record. Amicus curiae.
If we could have another spread of neck bones, greens and sweet potatoes at the Walker law office to celebrate another milestone in John Walker’s remarkable life, as we did on his 70th birthday: Count me in.