John W. Walker, the civil rights giant, died during the night at his home on Sherry Drive, County Coroner Gerone Hobbs confirms.
The coroner got a call at 6:25 a.m. as is customary in deaths at home, Hobbs said.
Walker, who was 82, had been treated for cancer in recent years, but told me in a phone call last week that he felt well. Walker, a state representative, was continuing his law practice, only last week objecting to efforts to close out the remainder of the long-running Pulaski County school desegregation case, in which the Pulaski and Jacksonville districts remain under court supervision. We talked in our last conversation of his interest in suing the state of Arkansas for racial discrimination in its recent takeover and management of the Little Rock School District. But he confessed that he saw the need for a younger lawyer to take up the battle he’d long waged. Another John Walker is not immediately on the horizon.
Walker was a towering figure, a native of Hope, who rose from a segregated school to national prominence. He was fearless and I think enjoyed in some ways having been made a dark force by the white business community, not only for his work in attempting to desegregate Little Rock schools but also for bringing numerous civil rights cases against private businesses. He did not, by the way, represent only black clients.
After high school in Hope and Houston, Texas, Walker earned his undergraduate degree from what is now UA Pine Bluff. Race kept him out of the University of Texas. He also received a master’s from New York University. He got his law degree at Yale, was admitted to the bar in 1964 and went to work initially for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund,.
He began a law practice in Little Rock in 1965 and would become a partner in the state’s first integrated law firm, one of the first three in the South. He was soon involved in the Little Rock desegregation battle, a role that he would hold as plaintiffs and defendants and court precedents shifted over the next almost 55 years. He spent those years as attorney for the group representing parents of black children. The lawsuit became a sore point with many (mostly white people), and Walker came to embody the lawsuit for his unflagging advocacy.
He was elected as a Democrat to the House in 2010 and his work there included education, most often as an opposition voice to the Republican-controlled legislature.
His employment discrimination victories included a race discrimination case brought by Walmart truck drivers.
Walker emerged repeatedly in high-profile news stories, from business and schools to Razorback athletics. He unsuccessfully tried to have three black players reinstated after they were removed from the Razorback football team before the 1978 Orange Bowl by coach Lou Holtz. Many years later, he sued the UA and Athletic Director Frank Broyles on behalf of basketball coach Nolan Richardson, who contended his firing was racially motivated. The suit was dismissed by a federal judge.
There will be more to come. Tributes have already begun on social media.. Gov. Asa Hutchinson, rarely on the same side with Walker, issued a tribute along with other Republican officials who’ve risen to prominence in Arkansas on a wave of antipathy toward the former black president Barack Obama and who’ve endorsed laws that contribute to resegregation of schools. A tribute from Michael John Gray, chair of the state Democratic Party, included a fact that shows how much times have changed: Walker was appointed to the state Board of Education by Republican Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller, but denied the seat by the then-Democratic Arkansas legislature.
Mayor Frank Scott Jr.’s tribute said, among others, “When you think of Little Rock over the past 50 years, you have to think about Rep. John W. Walker.” He meant this in a positive fashion, but there’s a double edge there, given his role in contributing to outsiders’ view of the city and its schools.
He often made people uncomfortable, said former Rep. Clarke Tucker — “a good thing.”
Said the Arkansas Legislative Black Caucus, in part:
Though often falling on unwelcoming ears, Rep. Walker never wavered on calling to attention that even today, the institutional, structural vestiges of racism and other injustices still haunt this American experiment called democracy. For him, the barriers to a high quality education seemingly most offended his sense of justice.
In the midst of commitment to righting wrongs, John lived a life of fun and sometimes harmless mischief. He made us laugh. The Arkansas Legislative Black Caucus celebrates his life well lived.
The Arkansas Education Association lauded his many contributions to education, including his work for African-American teachers and students as counsel for the Arkansas Teachers Association, which merged with the AEA in 1969. It noted, particularly, his work against disparate treatment of black educators, fighting for equal pay and promotional opportunities. A friend remembered his lawsuit for Lee Hardman, passed over as football coach at Dollarway High School. Hardman got the jjob and went on to win four state championships.
Watch Walker here in a recent Clinton School lecture on civil rights and wrongs.
I’ve written before about my 47 years of association with Walker, not all of them comfortable. The settlement of the desegregation lawsuit six years ago was one of those times. He rightly called down the failure of liberal media to have sufficiently diverse workforces. He was brilliant, which helped him through his sometimes less than disciplined preparation for a heavy workload. But though he’d become a caricature black hat to many in Little Rock, he could be charming and funny. I liked him. I’ll miss our long talks. The broader community will miss him for many more reasons.
He had said he was working on a memoir. I hope the coming days will reveal its existence and contents.