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Update: Civil Rights Legend John Walker Dies

7 min read

State Rep. John W. Walker, a Little Rock lawyer and civil rights legend, has died. He was 82.

The Pulaski County coroner was called to Walker’s home early Monday morning. Walker had died during the night.

Walker is probably best known to many for his involvement in the long-running Little Rock School District desegregation case, but he handled many others involving civil rights violations.

His body will lie in state at the state capitol from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Thursday, the Secretary of State’s Office confirmed Tuesday afternoon.

A spokesperson with Ruffin & Jarrett Funeral Home also told Arkansas Business on Tuesday that a family visitation is set for 6-8 p.m. Thursday at Wesley Chapel United Methodist on the campus of Philander Smith College.

The funeral is set for 11 a.m. Friday at St. Mark’s Baptist Church on West 12th Street. Burial will be at a cemetery in Hope, Walker’s hometown.

“John Walker was a brilliant lawyer and devoted public servant who spent his life fighting to give all Arkansans the opportunity to succeed,” Former President Bill Clinton said in a statement late Monday. “From the courtroom to the Capitol, he never wavered in his pursuit of justice or his belief that a democracy only works when everyone can participate fully. I’m grateful for his more than 40 years of friendship and the way he lived his life, giving and serving until the very end.”

“He’s a giant of civil rights history in this state,” said John Kirk, Donaghey Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and the author of several books on civil rights in Arkansas.

“People think about Daisy Bates and the Little Rock Nine as soon as they think about civil rights in Arkansas, and they played an important role at a pivotal moment in Arkansas history with the desegregation of Central High,” Kirk said.  

“But John’s civil rights career lasted decades. And it was out of sight a lot of the time in the courtroom, but for longevity it would be difficult to think of anybody who contributed more profoundly and fundamentally to the civil rights movement in Arkansas over the 20th century.”

As news of Walker’s death circulated, state officials offered statements.

“It is with much sadness that Susan and I learned of the passing of Rep. John Walker,” Gov. Asa Hutchinson said. “For years, I followed his work as a civil rights attorney and advocate. For the last five years I have had the opportunity to see John ably and passionately represent his constituents as a member of the General Assembly. 

“John always was a gentleman and proved every day that you can get along with people even though there may be disagreements. He worked tirelessly for the causes he championed and for the people he represented. We will miss his service to our state. Our prayers are with his family and loved ones.”

Attorney General Leslie Rutledge said: “I was saddened to learn of the passing of Representative Walker. Representative Walker was a tireless advocate on behalf of his clients and constituents, leaving a strong and lasting legacy with the State. He was also a man of deep faith, and I pray that faith gives comfort to his loved ones during this difficult time.”

U.S. District Judge Billy Roy Wilson called Walker “a towering figure in civil rights. There’s no question about that. He was a very talented individual and had a lot of nerve.” Wilson in 2007 declared the Little Rock School District “unitary,” meaning it had fulfilled court orders to address issues of equal opportunity in education — over, as the judge noted, Walker’s objection.

“John Walker is the pre-eminent figure in the civil rights movement in Arkansas, at least from 1960 until the present time,” said Ernie Dumas, a veteran Little Rock journalist. “He would compete for that honor with L.C. and Daisy Bates and Wiley Branton.” 

Kirk described a daylong conference in Little Rock in 2011 on the sit-ins and freedom rides of the civil rights movement, a conference attended by a number of former workers with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a major civil rights organization.

“And it was amazing to watch John with them, because they all knew him,” Kirk said. “They all had their own stories about how John had driven out into the Delta to get them out of jail and how he’d been the person who kind of held everything together and took care of the legal side of things.

“There’s a lot with John that we do know about him and his public life and career, but there’s so much more, the stuff he did on a day-to-day basis that we don’t know about. We just know really the tip of the iceberg of his civil rights legacy.”

Nat Griswold, the first director of the Arkansas Council on Human Relations, which worked to desegregate schools and business in the state, advised Walker to get a law degree, Kirk said. Griswold told Walker that “everything in civil rights ultimately comes down to questions of law, and you’d be well-advised to pursue a legal career. That’s probably the best way you can contribute.”

Little Rock journalist Max Brantley reported on the Arkansas Times blog that Walker had been treated for cancer in recent years, but told Brantley in a phone call last week that he felt well. 

John Winfred Walker was born June 3, 1937, in Hope. He attended Yerger High School in Hope and graduated from Jack Yates High School in 1954 in Houston, Texas. 

Walker was the first African American undergraduate student admitted to the University of Texas after the Brown decision in 1954 but was not allowed to attend. He received his bachelor’s degree in 1958 from Arkansas A.M. & N. College (now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff) and his master’s in 1961 from New York University. 

Walker earned his law degree in 1964 from Yale Law School. He was admitted to the Arkansas Bar that year and went to work for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in New York City. Walker remained associated with the Legal Defense Fund as a cooperating attorney and later as a member of the board.

In 1965, Walker started a law practice in Little Rock, focusing on civil rights, and in 1968, he opened one of the first three racially integrated law firms in the South, first known as Walker & Chachkin. 

In 1965, Walker became involved in the Little Rock school case, a case started by the late Wiley Branton Sr. and Thurgood Marshall, then a general counsel with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and later a U.S. Supreme Court justice. That case in essence evolved into the Little Rock School District desegregation lawsuit.

Walker has been honored by the National Bar Association, the American Trial Lawyers Association, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and the American Civil Liberties Union. Walker was inducted into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame in 1999. In 2004, he was awarded the designation as Southern Trial Lawyer of the Year with its War Horse award. 

Walker was included among Arkansas Business’ 25 Minority Trailblazers in the 25th anniversary issue of the publication.

Walker, a Democrat, ran and lost the election for the Arkansas House of Representatives in 2002 but ran again for the 34th District position, in 2010. He won that race and continued to win. He was serving his fifth term in the House when he died. 

Walker served as a principal at the John W. Walker law firm in Little Rock and practiced law throughout Arkansas and the surrounding states.

In addition to the Little Rock school case, in which Walker represented the Joshua intervenors, the lawyer took a number of other high-profile civil rights cases during his career. Among them was that of former Arkansas Razorbacks basketball coach Nolan Richardson, who unsuccessfully sued the University of Arkansas over his 2002 firing. Richardson had alleged racial discrimination. 

In a 2000 profile of Walker for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, the Little Rock lawyer told author Jack Schnedler, “I’m still an agitator. You know what the role of an agitator is in a washing machine — you can’t get the clothes clean without it. I don’t like that role. I’d rather be the motor. Or I’d rather be a person who could effectuate change without necessarily impacting upon people.”

News of Walker’s death prompted tributes on social media. “Arkansas has lost a giant in the struggle for civil rights and racial equity,” Loretta Alexander commented on the Arkansas Times Facebook page. “We depended on him either directly or indirectly to help make things right for us. God bless his legacy.”

And Richard Reynolds wrote: “My brother and I had the privilege to work with Mr. Walker in our fight for special needs children in LRSD. We are blessed and honored to have stood beside a great man in this continuing fight.”

Kirk noted that Walker chose to return to Arkansas after obtaining his law degree back East. “So many black leaders left the state and went on to glittering careers elsewhere and made their names elsewhere,” Kirk said. “But John very consciously decided to come back to Arkansas and try and shape his home state.”

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