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In one long-ago minute from his 82-plus years of legendary life, civil rights lawyer John Walker gave a young journalist his most indelible lesson in America's noble system of criminal justice.

In 1977 I was a first-year cub reporter for the Arkansas Gazette when I was called to jury duty in Pulaski Circuit Court. My name was drawn, putting me in the jury box for voir dire. The prosecutors would subsequently excuse me, but that's not the point.

This was a criminal case and a young African American man stood accused. He was represented by an African American lawyer whom I didn't yet appreciate, or even much know of.

He was John Walker.

As I recall, Walker seemed to pick out at random the name of a man in the jury box. He asked the man what crime had been committed in the case.

The fellow answered that he wasn't sure, but thought it was aggravated robbery. And Walker told him that he was wrong.

Walker said that no crime had been committed in the case; that the jury needed to be a blank slate in order to provide the fair trial to its peer for which it was responsible; that it was up to the state's attorney to establish that a crime had been committed, never mind the second question dependent on the first as to whether the man on trial had committed it.

And there it was, by which I mean the very essence of our justice system.

More than two decades later, I was on the phone with Walker on a Saturday morning, relating that white liberal public-school advocates were exasperated with him for fomenting problems at Pulaski Heights Junior High School.

He'd been raising and pursuing complaints of discrimination in disciplinary practices against African American students. I told him I wished for all the world that he and well-meaning whites could find something to fight other than each other.

He said, "I'm not clear on what you would have me do."

I wasn't clear either.

What, exactly, was I asking of a career civil rights legal champion who was representing African American clients on reports of discrimination? What was my point, exactly, in this place with a history of racism and in a time of powerful lingering contemporary vestiges of that history?

Was I wanting him to represent the aggrieved less vigorously? Was I saying, oh, come on, just this once, could you cut the better white people a little slack?

So let me seek to capture John Walker's now-concluded life and career in one statement: He did not cut slack.

To the white business establishment of Little Rock that cried for decades that the city needed to get its schools out of court, and that Walker needed to stop suffocating the city in school litigation, he did not cut slack.

And to the University of Arkansas athletic department when it suspended black football players on a coach's "do-right rule" and then fired a national championship black basketball coach, he did not cut slack.

Speaking of cutting no slack: I remember that Walker even subpoenaed the college transcript of a local sports columnist who had criticized the aforementioned black basketball coach. Walker sought to introduce those grades into the federal court record.

The judge looked at the grades and said, you know, they're not all that much worse than some of mine and I'm not seeing any particular need in this case for their being made a part of the record.

Maybe Walker had made his point, though, in that incident, I'm not sure what it was. Seeking accountability in educationally challenged white opinion writers in the newspaper struck a little close to the bone.

I remember overhearing Frank Broyles telling Walker that, in Walker's cross-examination of him in that Nolan Richardson trial, Walker had him on his turf and at a disadvantage.

And I remember hearing Walker reply that the coach had done better on his turf than he'd likely do on the coach's.

There was no slack for legends. But there was respect among them.

And to all of Pulaski County when it couldn't seem to improve the educational opportunities of its black children or balance those opportunities with those of white kids running away from the black children to private schools and charter schools and bedroom havens, he simply would never think of cutting any slack.

What--he would wonder--would we have had him do?

I think we'd have had John Walker do what John Walker did, even with all the frustration and resentment, sometimes even the destructiveness.

Racism and segregation--you should never be allowed to proceed comfortably from those histories, much less the continuing manifestations of them.

And John Walker moved among us to make danged sure we couldn't.


John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.

Editorial on 10/29/2019

Print Headline: JOHN BRUMMETT: Walker cut no slack


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