Sometimes in political reporting, you just get lucky. You’re in the right place at the right time.
I sat down on August 1, 2019 for a lengthy public conversation with civil rights attorney John Winfred Walker, who died in his sleep on Monday, Oct. 28, 2019 at the age of 82. This interview is likely the last one Walker conducted.
I had badgered him for weeks for an interview in front of a class of west Little Rock retirees I was speaking to at LifeQuest. I wanted Walker to reflect on his upbringing, his early civil rights work, and his long-running efforts aimed at desegregation in the Little Rock Public Schools. While his role in the legislature was commendable, it is the body of work from his decades as a civil rights attorney that will be his lasting legacy.
I knew there would be advocates and detractors in the crowd for the August event. Indeed, a few folks indicated the week before that they just couldn’t and didn’t want to be there for the conversation. There was just too much bad ilk from years of racial inflammation between Walker and them.
Thanks to Margaret Freeman, mother of my friend since high school, Allie Freeman, she helped me coerce and deliver Walker to LifeQuest for the interview on that early August day.
As a student in the Little Rock public schools through the 1970’s and first half of the 1980’s, Walker’s legal work led to bussing, school rezoning and other interventions. I have to say as a white kid growing up in post-1957 Little Rock, my memories of school were generally pretty positive. I had friends from all walks of life in the city as I attended six schools – Terry, Mitchell, Henderson, Booker, Forest Heights, and Hall – in 12 years. Some of my migration was due to family moving, some due to bussing, some due to school district reorganizations.
By my Hall High school days, I knew a bunch of students at the other two main high schools – Central and Parkview – because I’d been in lower schools with them. It built a stronger sense of community that is clearly missing today. And I think that was one of the points of creating equal opportunities for all of the children in Little Rock at that time.
My interpretation of John Walker is different than my elders. His efforts with public schools shaped my world view and, I think, are a big reason that I am as tolerant, open-minded, inquisitive and connected as I am today.
From our August conversation, there were some legendary stories that Walker shared.
He moved from Hope, Arkansas to Houston, Texas to complete high school, which he did in 1954, the same year as the Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas decision was handed down. Walker was admitted to the University of Texas and wanted to enter the engineering school to become a petroleum engineer, not a lawyer. However, he was “de-admitted” not because of his grades – he was a stellar student – but because of his skin color.
Just this past year, Walker was able to retrieve papers from the discovery process in a lawsuit he was part of related to his University of Texas ordeal. He shared a letter dated 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 came back to what is now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff and graduated, while working with the Arkansas Council on Human Relations, a progressive group of white Arkansans working with people of color to advance desegregation and racial equality.
Walker recalled that several relationships borne from his work with the Council led to him being admitted to New York University for graduate school and later Yale Law School, where he earned his law degree. Remember, he wanted to be a petroleum engineer.
“I attribute much of my ability to have upward mobility to interactions that began at the Council on Human Relations… I got my opportunity through interaction with white people,” Walker said. “Some of you in your lives have called me ‘racist,’ but one of the things I learned along the way is that in order for people to grow, at least personally, they have to interact. It doesn’t matter who you are. Even if you’re just white and white and black and black, you have to have some interaction if you want to know about each other.”
Walker later discussed the racial harmony he believes existed in Little Rock from roughly 1968-1990, in essence, a big portion of the period of public school attendance I experienced.
“What happened when you had the cross-bussing is that people had an opportunity to interact across racial and socio-economic lines. I would say they developed friendships and they interacted. And many of them still interact,” Walker said.
“Little Rock was well-regarded during that time,” he said. “But about 1992, after the school settlement in 1989, there became divisions that were race-based” and, according to Walker, more economic in nature.
We ended our conversation discussing President Donald Trump, who at the time of our conversation was blistering Rep. Elijah Cummings and the city of Baltimore as well as four Congresswomen referred to as The Squad – all four being women of color.
I asked Walker if he was discouraged by where America now stood with respect to civil rights and racial respect.
“I’m of the view that what I had hoped to see when I was 21 years of age, and 25, 26 when I finished law school, I’ll never see in my lifetime, I’ll never see a high degree of racial harmony. And I think that people like Trump promote disharmony. One thing about it is that disharmony requires a lot of soldiers on both sides,” he said.
“What you’ve had in the past are more on one side than the other. But surprisingly something is happening, so I’m at least optimistic. Because some of you now – when I see you white people – some of you now are coming to understand hatred. You’re trying to disassociate yourself from it as overtly as you can. Some are committed to it.
“I think there is now hope. But I don’t know if I’ll see it. I’m 82 years old. I think that I’m time-limited,” Walker predicted. “I don’t see a revolution coming, but I do see an evolution where people are going to be of more goodwill in the foreseeable future.”
I’m just a white kid who grew up in integrated public schools in Little Rock, and I’m thankful for my good fortune and timing. I was lucky to sit down with John Walker and hear him speak, lucky to tell him I appreciated something good that came from his efforts.
For those who knew him better than me, for those who had much more to gain from the causes he championed, I hope you’ll let our readers know what John Winfred Walker meant to you.
Editor’s note: Roby Brock is the editor-in-chief of Talk Business & Politics. The opinions expressed are those of the author.