Headline: Attorney, Civil Rights Icon John Walker dies at 82
Byline: Special to The Commercial
LITTLE ROCK — On Monday, Arkansans awoke to the news of State Representative John Walker’s passing at the age of 82.
“We are all saddened to learn that our colleague has died, someone I considered a personal friend,” said Democratic Party of Arkansas Chairman Michael John Gray. “Serving in the state Legislature with Representative Walker was humbling and to fight alongside him for civil rights in Arkansas was a privilege. Across the entire state, we are carrying a heavy heart and mourn together. But we also must celebrate his life and his struggle for equal justice. It will be appalling, and heartbreaking, if we fail to record his story and teach it to future generations of Arkansans.”
John Walker was at the forefront of many major Civil Rights struggles. He was born June 3, 1937 in Hope, Arkansas. He 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 for racial reasons. In 1958, he graduated from Arkansas A M & N College in Pine Bluff, Arkansas with a degree in Sociology; in 1961 he received a master’s degree from New York University; and in 1964 he received a law degree from Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut
In 1964, Walker was admitted to the Arkansas State Bar and went to work for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in New York City. By 1965, Walker opened up his own solo practice in Little Rock, Arkansas with a focus on civil rights. In 1968, Walker opened one of the first three racially integrated law firms in the south.
Republican Governor Winthrop Rockefeller attempted to appoint John Walker to the state Board of Education.. He would have been the first African-American to serve on the board that supervises public schools in Arkansas. His appointment was denied by the Arkansas Legislature due to his work on a 1965 Little Rock schools case started by the late Wiley Branton and later Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. He was awarded the designation as Southern Trial Lawyer of the Year with its War Horse Award in 2004.
Walker served as a Democratic member of the Arkansas House of Representatives since January 2011 from District 34 in Little Rock.
Walker was named Arkansas Civil Rights Heritage Trail honoree in 2015 for his more than five decades of work in civil rights activism in the courts, most notably in school desegregation cases.
Members of the Arkansas Legislative Black Caucus issued statements Monday about Walker’s death.
“John Walker loved his home state,” ALB Chair Joyce Elliott said. ” He was the embodiment of a man who fearlessly and relentlessly fought to make Arkansas a better place. I believe that history will show it was he who made the most lasting contribution to setting education on the road to equality and equity for every student. His legacy must inform our future.”
State Rep. Jay Richardson, Vice-chair of the Arkansas Legislative Black Caucus served with Rep. Walker in the Arkansas Legislature.
“Representative John Walker has been a fearless advocate dating to the Civil Rights Movement’s early major victories,” said said Richardson. “He was in many ways at the tip of the spear during our state’s darkest moments, showing us the brightest path forward. Arkansas can honor the life and work of John Walker by finishing the causes he fought for, by not letting the struggle for equity in education fall by the wayside. I know we will rise to the occasion.”
Lieutenant Governor Tim Griffin on Monday issued the following statement on the passing of Walker:
“I am saddened by the passing of Representative John Walker, and my thoughts and prayers are with his family during this difficult time. He was passionate in his service to Arkansas and strongly advocated for his constituents, and while we were often on different sides of issues, he was always kind and respectful.”
Governor Asa Hutchinson also issued a statement Monday on the passing of Walker.
“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.”