John Walker, whose childhood education in segregated schools informed his half-century legal crusade for equality as Arkansas' premier civil-rights lawyer, died Monday morning at his home. He was 82.
Aside from representing black families in the 36-year-old Pulaski County school desegregation federal lawsuit, the Hope native also fought discrimination in the workplace, housing, elections, policing, the judiciary and other school districts, his colleagues said.
"People are benefiting from [Walker's] work who don't even know they're benefiting from his work," said juvenile court Judge Wiley Branton Jr., son of the late civil-rights icon Wiley Branton.
"John was a fearless civil-rights advocate," the younger 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."
Walker was, in his own words, an "agitator" who embraced challenging, expensive cases waged against corporate Arkansas.
Armed with landmark federal civil-rights laws and backed by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's legal defense fund, Walker since the 1960s used the courts to fight inequality throughout the social landscape.
Walker, who founded the first racially integrated law firm in Arkansas, inspired other lawyers to tackle civil rights and recruited a diverse roster of talented litigators to join him.
He hopped around the state, suing companies and institutions as varied as Walmart, First National Bank of Little Rock, the Arkansas State Hospital and the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville -- often, though not always, winning in both state and federal courtrooms and at the appellate level.Gallery: John Walker through the years
Walker won settlements for his clients that included cash as well as pledges from their employers to better recruit and hire people of color.
"He tried many, many cases in the employment discrimination field when discrimination against blacks in employment was much more of a problem than it is today," federal Magistrate Judge Beth Deere said. "I'm not saying it's all been cured, but back in the '70s and '80s, he took on the big companies, big banks, big industry in Arkansas and largely prevailed."
"You have to recognize someone who will go against the grain and fight for the underdogs," said Deere, who first worked with Walker on the desegregation case while she clerked for U.S. District Judge Henry Woods. "He would take on these individual cases, and he certainly had his detractors, and he and I didn't always get along, but I always admired him."
Contemporaries remembered Walker as a trial whiz, expert orator and creative thinker who questioned witnesses without a script, listening attentively to answers he could deconstruct. He'd cold-call workers at companies he planned to sue, taking notes while peers watched the gambit with awe, according to two attorneys who worked with him.
"He was the type of guy that when he went out for a case, he went all the way," said Richard Mays, who left behind a young career as a full-time deputy prosecutor to join Walker's firm in 1971. "He was creative in [finding] ways to prevail. And ... he could disagree without being disagreeable."
Publicly, Walker is best known for his work in education. He held a master's degree in education from New York University, spent decades litigating the Pulaski County desegregation case and focused primarily on educational issues after winning election to the state House of Representatives in 2010.
In 1968, Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller nominated Walker to be the first black member of the state Board of Education. The Arkansas Senate rejected the appointment, largely because of his efforts to end segregation, Mays said.
At times, Walker felt that the political systems he took to court had turned against him, Branton said.
"I'm still an agitator," Walker, then 62, said in 2000 for an Arkansas Democrat-Gazette High Profile article. "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."
Several observers said Walker, who began practicing law in 1965, is on the short list of Arkansas' most successful civil-rights attorneys, if not at the very top. Those observers include his former law partner-turned-occasional adversary, Phil Kaplan.
"If you look at span of an entire career, I don't think that you can put anybody else in the same rank," Kaplan said. "I think that's fair to say."
Walker was primed to be among the first class of black students at the University of Texas in Austin before officials reneged on his admission on registration day, he told the newspaper in 2000.
Walker grew up in segregated schools in Arkansas and in Houston, where his family moved after his sophomore year at Henry C. Yerger High in Hope. After being denied by the Texas flagship university, he spurned enrolling at the all-black Howard University in Washington, D.C., and sued for admission to the University of Texas.
"I also knew that a degree from the University of Texas meant a lot," Walker said in the High Profile article. "A school is more than buildings -- it is a legion of relationships."
Walker lost the lawsuit. His savings were depleted, so he moved in with an uncle in Pine Bluff and attended what was then the all-black Arkansas Agricultural, Mechanical and Normal College (AM&N), now called the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff.
Walker studied sociology. At the time, the Central High School desegregation crisis was unfolding in Little Rock after the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Walker wrote an opinion piece about the Central High case for his student newspaper.
After Arkansas AM&N, Walker matriculated to New York University and obtained his master's degree in education. He earned his law degree from the Yale Law School and made his way to Little Rock in 1965.
His first case, which he caught before hanging a shingle, was to represent 450 black high school students who were arrested in Forrest City while protesting racial discrimination, according to the High Profile article.
"They were trying the students 23 at a time without counsel," Walker said.
It was the start of an occasionally polarizing career highly regarded by another of Hope's famous sons, former President Bill Clinton.
"John Walker was a brilliant lawyer and devoted public servant who spent his life fighting to give all Arkansans the opportunity to succeed," Clinton said in a statement. "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."
MOTIVATED BY HOPE
Kaplan, who is white, joined Walker as a partner in what became Walker, Kaplan and Mays in 1969, he said.
Walker, who had already founded the state's first integrated law firm, long worked alongside white attorneys. He and Kaplan worked together until 1978.
"John understood -- because he had that experience growing up in Hope -- he understood what that milieu could do to disadvantage a child who was not as exceptional as he was," Kaplan said. "That clearly motivated him. He didn't talk a lot about it. What he talked about was making sure the law was followed."
Walker, working both individual and class-action cases, took on some of Arkansas' most well-known institutions.
He was part of the team that agreed to a $17.5 million settlement in a nationwide lawsuit against Walmart Inc. in 2009 over allegations that the company discriminated against black people in its recruitment and hiring of truck drivers.
In one of his most public and contentious cases, Walker represented fired Razorbacks basketball coach Nolan Richardson in his lawsuit against UA. A federal judge dismissed the lawsuit in 2004, and the decision was upheld on appeal.
Representing UA and opposing Walker in that case was his former partner Kaplan, who remembered the trial as "fairly contentious."
Richardson on Monday said he regarded Walker as a close friend and was impressed by Walker's "attention to detail."
"He did his research," Richardson said. "Just about anything he talked about, he already knew the answers. ... His kindness, in his rapport with others that were around him, he was just smooth as silk. You won't meet a better person, I can tell you that."
Mays said Walker's legacy was more than the winnings in individual cases, ticking off names of black executives at Arkansas firms who he said were given opportunities because of cultural changes made by the companies after lawsuits.
"A lot of the brothers went into those positions as a result of settlements as a result of lawsuits that John filed alleging a pattern of discrimination at the upper [management] levels," Mays said.
There is no natural successor to Walker -- whose contemporaries remembered him as brilliant and tenacious, a gadfly and a thorn in the side, a courageous attorney who took on the state's most powerful institutions.
"We're at a point where maybe society has changed enough, at least in the South, so that we don't need that much energy and aggressiveness just to deal with basic human rights," Mays said, adding later that that "might be an overly optimistic perspective."
Democrat-Gazette President Lynn Hamilton, who served 15 years on the North Little Rock School Board, said Walker "had real passion."
"I admired the fact that he was rational, a good analytical thinker, and he was always fair to us," Hamilton said.
Skip Rutherford, dean of the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service, remembered agreeing with Walker, disagreeing with him and maintaining a "loyal" friendship throughout.
"I think it was a life well lived," said Rutherford, who worked with Walker in desegregation cases as a Little Rock School Board member from 1987-91. "I think it was a life that sparked controversy [because] he often made the comfortable uncomfortable. He sure gave a lot of hope to people. He was the voice of the voiceless."
Walker's death comes almost 37 years after the Pulaski County school desegregation case began and several months before a summer 2020 trial in which the remaining defendants -- Jacksonville/North Pulaski schools and the Pulaski County Special School District -- will aim to be declared in compliance with federal law.
Scott Richardson, who represents the Jacksonville district, has been a Walker adversary in the case for the past 12-plus years, dating back to his time in the Arkansas attorney general's office.
"[Walker's] absence will most definitely be felt," said Richardson, who noted that the lawsuit is at a "historic" moment. "John is just such a towering figure in that case and has been such a central figure in it for so long."
Walker continued to actively practice law, hosting a court-mandated monthly meeting among participants in the case on Friday. Attendees lunched on catfish, said Sam Jones, who represents the Pulaski County Special district.
"For a man at 82, he seemed just as vigorous as he could be," Richardson said.
U.S. District Court Judge D Price. Marshall Jr., who is presiding over the case, shared a prepared remark during a brief phone call but declined to answer questions.
"Mr. Walker was indefatigable, a great lawyer," Marshall said.
Little Rock attorney Austin Porter Jr., who has assisted Walker in the case for years, said he "more than likely" will take over as the lead attorney in the case.
"I'm committed to seeing that the work is done," Porter said, but, "We're going to have to take a few days and regroup."
Walker, a Democrat who had represented District 34 in the state House of Representatives since 2011, drew bipartisan praise from officials on Monday.
Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott Jr., Family Council President Jerry Cox, and Arkansas Education Association President Carol Fleming were among many who issued statements speaking highly of Walker.
"He would sometimes stay there and meditate and listen," Hutchinson told reporters at the Capitol. "But then he'd always make some rather astute observations and make his points, rather pointedly."
Walker's legislative focus centered on education. As a member of the House Education Committee, he was often the lone dissenter, with a watchful eye for how legislation would affect children of color and those living in poverty.
Walker took his trial experience to the state Capitol. For many, it was an unpleasant experience to sit at the end of the table in a committee room and be on the receiving end of Walker's detailed questions.
"Most people did not like to be questioned by John," said Rep. Bruce Cozart, R-Hot Springs, who chairs the House Education Committee. "He was a smart man, and he knew what he was saying. I can't stress enough how smart of a man John was. If you've been grilled by John, you've really been grilled."
A former leader of the Legislative Black Caucus, state Rep. Vivian Flowers, D-Pine Bluff, said she first met Walker when she was a child, as he represented her father in a legal matter. Later, in the Legislature, Walker wasted no time on building relationships, she said. Instead, he focused on speaking assertively on the issues he had long championed.
"He was there on business," Flowers said.
Other lawmakers, both Democrats and Republicans, remembered Walker for frequent trips to the well of the House floor.
"He was not bashful about saying when he disagreed with something," said Arkansas Democratic Party Chairman Michael John Gray, who served with Walker in the House from 2015 until January. "The politics of how something sounded never mattered to John; it was whether it was right or wrong."
During this year's legislative session, Rep. Fred Allen, D-Little Rock, sponsored a bill that would've required schools to teach about various civil-rights leaders from Arkansas, including Walker.
Allen said Monday that he included Walker because of his work in education.
"He was one of the original pioneers and advocates for poor African Americans to be able get a good education," Allen said. "He stood on the battlefield for a long time."
The bill was ultimately changed, and all of the individual names were removed. However, Walker spoke on the House floor against the initial bill. He said that he never wanted to be accused of being self-serving.
History, Walker said, cannot be rewritten, and he wasn't asking to be included in Allen's legislation, which became Act 1018 of 2019.
"It's already too late because many of your history books already have me in there, so there's nothing you can do to exclude me," Walker said with a wry smile. "That is so because I have basically been involved in all of the social action in the state of Arkansas for the last 50 years, and I'm somewhat proud of it."
Information for this article was contributed by Bob Holt and Linda Satter of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
State Rep. Fred Allen pauses Monday at John Walker’s desk on the floor of the House of Representatives.
John Walker addresses members of the state Board of Education during an August meeting at Longley Baptist Church about the future of the Little Rock School District.
John Walker (front) and attorney Robert Pressman, both members of the legal team representing black students in the Pulaski County school desegregation case, leave the Little Rock federal courthouse during the lunch break of a 2001 hearing.
Former University of Arkansas, Fayetteville men’s basketball coach Nolan Richardson (right) walks away from the University of Arkansas System’s administration building in Little Rock in March 2002, joined by attorneys John Walker (left) and Rickey Hicks. Richardson had filed a discrimination lawsuit against the university, which was dismissed in 2004.
A Section on 10/29/2019
Print Headline: John Walker, a civil-rights pioneer as lawyer, lawmaker, dies at 82