With a law degree from Yale and a lightning-quick mind, John Walker, born in Hope, could have had a brilliant career anywhere. Instead, he quite deliberately chose to stay in Arkansas to try to remedy some of the many wrongs of a racist power and educational structure, many of which he personally suffered.
Walker, variously and accurately described as a civil rights “giant,” “legend” and “icon,” died last week at 82, having spent his life fighting for equal opportunities for African Americans in education, in public institutions and in employment.
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“People are benefiting from [Walker’s] work who don’t even know they’re benefiting from his work,” juvenile court Judge Wiley Branton Jr., son of another civil rights legend, told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
“John was a fearless civil-rights advocate,” Branton said. “He was a tireless warrior for equal justice under the law. He was one of a handful of attorneys who was responsible for improving employment and economic opportunities for black people across the state for more than 50 years.”
In talking to Arkansas Business, John Kirk, Donaghey Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, noted that “many black leaders left the state and went on to glittering careers elsewhere and made their names elsewhere. But John very consciously decided to come back to Arkansas and try and shape his home state.”
It wasn’t easy. And it took a toll on him. Walker himself said his role as an “agitator” wasn’t his preference, but it was necessary. Walker’s favorite quote, he told the HistoryMakers, a nonprofit archive of the personal stories of African Americans, was “Illegitimi non carborundum,” mock Latin for “don’t let the bastards grind you down.”
The state of Arkansas is hugely better because John Walker stayed and because he never stopped fighting.