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John W. Walker, Hope Native, Attorney, and Civil Rights Champion, Dies at 82

By Revis Edmonds, Ph.D. Special to the Hope-Prescott News , 10/29/19 8:45 PM

​John Winfred Walker, a native of Hope who rose from segregated schools to becoming a Yale-educated lawyer at the forefront of some of Arkansas’s most prominent civil rights cases, as well as a member of the Arkansas House of Representatives, died in his sleep Tuesday morning at his Little Rock home after a long battle with cancer. He was 82. His passing came filled with tributes on both sides of the political aisle, and Governor Asa Hutchinson has ordered state flags lowered to half-staff from sunrise on Tuesday October 29 until the day of Walker’s internment. 

​Walker was born in Hope on June 3, 1937, the son of a general laborer, and his mother was a housewife. His grandparents were educators, and until the beginning of his junior year attended then-segregated Yerger High School. He graduated from Jack Yates High School in Houston, Texas in 1954, and went on to become the first African-American undergraduate admitted to the University of Texas after the Brown v. Board of Education decision that same year.  Walker, who enrolled with the goal of becoming a petroleum engineer with a career in the booming energy industry, was he was “de-admitted” when the admissions office discovered he was black, although his academic achievement was stellar. Walker filed suit against the University after declining admission to all-black Howard University in Washington, D.C.   In an August 2019 interview with Roby Brock of Talk Business & Politics, Walker stated that in 2018 he was able to retrieve papers from the discovery process in a lawsuit related to his University of Texas ordeal. From those papers contained a letter of May 27, 1954 from the UT registrar to the dean of admissions: 

I have now on my desk two applicants for admission to the College of Engineering for work leading to a bachelor’s degree. I believe we should give some consideration to the procedures for admitting undergraduates. If we want to exclude as many Negro undergraduates as possible, we could require applicants for professional work not offered at Texas Southern or Prairie View to first enroll in one of the Negro schools and take at least one year of the academic work required for all degrees. This will keep Negroes out of most classes where there are a large number of girls. 

​Walker ultimately lost the suit, and with his savings drained, returned to Arkansas, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in Sociology from Arkansas AM&N College in 1958, and with his passion for education, a master’s in Education from New York University in 1961.  After the Central High Crisis broke, Walker wrote an article about it for the AM&N newspaper. After earning his law degree from Yale in 1964, Walker worked briefly for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in New York before returning to Arkansas, where his first case was the defense of 450 students of Forrest City Schools who were arrested when protesting racial discrimination. What particularly galled Walker was the fact that the local courts were trying the students 23 at a time without counsel. Walker founded the state’s first integrated law firm in 1965 and in 1969 was joined by Phillip Kaplan, long prominent in the American Civil Liberties Union, and Richard Mays, who like Walker later served in the Arkansas House. For the next fifty years, Walker would take on some of Arkansas’s beast known institutions on behalf of individuals and groups.

​Walker led the team that won a $17.5 million settlement against Walmart in 2009 over charges of discrimination in hiring and promotions of black truck drivers. Another contentious case was against the University of Arkansas, then represented by former law partner Kaplan, in the matter of the University’s firing of Head Basketball Coach Nolan Richardson. A federal judge upheld UA, and the verdict was affirmed on appeal. One case has continued to be a Walker focus since 1965, which was the Little Rock school case that was originated by the late Wiley Branton, Sr. and NAACP general counsel and future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.  Walker has been a central figure in the long-running Pulaski County School case, obtaining permission to intervene in the case representing a class of black parents known as the Joshua Intervenors. His death comes 37 years after the start of that case, and a few months before a scheduled 2020 trial aimed at declaring the Pulaski County Special and Jacksonville-North Pulaski School Districts in compliance with federal law. 

​In 2010, Walker was elected to the Arkansas House of Representatives as a Democrat, and even amongst intense disagreements, gained the respect of colleagues on both sides of the aisle. Representative Brandt Smith (R-Jonesboro), the House Majority Whip, described Walker as “an ardent champion for civil rights who will be missed.”  Representative Danny Watson (R-Hope), said that it was “my honor to serve with Representative Walker” and called him a “true Gentleman…to me, and the whole Legislative body.”  Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott Jr. commented that, “When you think of Little Rock over the past 50 years, you have to think about Rep. John W. Walker.”  Former Rep. Clarke Tucker (D-Little Rock), observed that Walker “often made people uncomfortable – a good thing.”  Governor Asa Hutchinson paid tribute to Walker in a statement, “It is with much sadness that Susan and I learned of the passing of Rep. John Walker. 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.” 

​Walker’s services have been announced; Walker’s body will lie in state at the state Capitol from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Thursday. A family visitation will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday at Walker’s church, Wesley Chapel United Methodist on the campus of Philander Smith College. The funeral will be at 11 a.m. on Friday at St. Mark’s Baptist Church on West 12th Street in Little Rock, as the church has a larger auditorium. The announcement stated that the burial will be in Hope, but no further details were given. All arrangements are under the direction of Ruffin and Jarrett Funeral Home of Little Rock. In lieu of flowers, memorials in Walker’s honor are suggested to Philander Smith College or to the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, where Walker earned his bachelor’s degree.