Rep. John Walker, who represented African-American students and Nolan Richardson as an attorney and also represented his Little Rock district in the Arkansas House of Representatives, was found dead in his home Monday (Oct. 28) at age 82.
The Pulaski County coroner said Walker died during the night at his home, and the coroner was called at 6:25 a.m., Max Brantley with the Arkansas Times reported. Walker had been treated for cancer in recent years, Brantley wrote.
Walker represented African American students and parents – a group known as the “Joshua intervenors” after plaintiff Lorene Joshua – in the long-running Little Rock school desegregation case. His work related to that case began in 1965, according to his law office’s website. He negotiated a desegregation and education plan in 1998, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas.
Walker was elected as a Democrat to represent Little Rock in the House of Representatives in 2010 and was serving his fifth term.
He was born June 3, 1937, in Hope and attended high school there before graduating from Jack Yates High School in Houston. He was the first African American undergraduate student admitted to the University of Texas after the Brown vs. Board of Education school desegregation Supreme Court decision in 1954.
He wanted to be a petroleum engineer, but he was denied entry. He later obtained correspondence from officials that clearly showed the denial was based on his race. He graduated from what is now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff in 1958 and earned a masters degree at New York University and his law degree at Yale in 1964.
He first worked for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in New York before opening a law practice in Little Rock in 1965 that emphasized civil rights. He opened one of the South’s first three racially integrated firms, Walker and Chachkin, in 1968. Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller, a Republican, attempted to appoint him as the first African American State Board of Education member, but the Legislature blocked the appointment because of his work on the Little Rock schools case, according to a press release from the Democratic Party of Arkansas.
Walker also represented Richardson, the former University of Arkansas head basketball coach, in his unsuccessful discrimination lawsuit against the UA after Richardson’s firing in 2002. He successfully represented African American truck drivers in a racial discrimination case against Walmart.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson released a statement saying, “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.”
Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, chair of the Arkansas Legislative Black Caucus, said in a statement released by the caucus, “John Walker loved his home state. 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.”
Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott released a statement saying, “When you think of Little Rock over the past 50 years, you have to think about Rep. John W. Walker. His passing leaves a large void in Little Rock and Arkansas. …
“Since 2011, Rep. Walker has served in the Arkansas General Assembly with the same gusto and commitment he displayed in the courtroom. He never backed down from fighting for causes he believed in. I appreciate his counsel and insight over the years, not only on politics and legal issues, but also as a fraternity brother. I will greatly miss our conversations. My prayers and condolences go out to Rep. Walker’s family. He leaves gigantic shoes to fill in the continued fight for equality and public advocacy.”
Walker could be combative in legislative meetings and on the House floor. His life experiences, viewpoints and policy positions stood in stark contrast to a largely Republican and white House of Representatives.
Rep. Bruce Cozart, R-Hot Springs, is chairman of the House Education Committee, on which Walker served. He said their relationship grew over the years. At first, other members of the largely Republican committee saw Walker through the lens of his education-related lawsuits. Cozart said that when he first became chairman, “John and I went at it a lot.” Over time, an affection developed between the other members and Walker, and he and Walker became friends.
Former Rep. Nate Bell, I-Mena, said he and Walker’s relationship grew after a lengthy discussion they had in the House chambers after one of Walker’s fiery speeches. In that hours-long personal discussion, Walker shared with him the racism he had experienced.
“Nobody could control him,” he said. “The Democrats would try to make him get in line, and he just wouldn’t, and he’d go to the well and speak for one of my bills, and guaranteed it’d get killed if he did, but he’d do it. And John was just one of those people that if he saw it as right, he was going to stick up for it no matter what, no matter who it upset. And if he saw it as wrong, he was going to stand up against it.”
Walker was arrested three years ago by Little Rock police after filming a traffic stop by police officers of a driver who had warrants for failure to appear and theft. According to the police report, he said he was filming because, “I’m just making sure they don’t kill you,” the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported. A passenger was also taken into custody because of a failure to appear warrant. Told to “leave or be arrested,” Walker responded, “Arrest me,” and he was.
The police later dropped a misdemeanor charge of obstructing governmental operations and apologized to Walker, according to the Democrat-Gazette.
Walker in 2015 had successfully co-sponsored a bill meant to protect Arkansans’ right to record or photograph events occurring in public, the newspaper reported.
Democratic Party of Arkansas Chairman Michael John Gray said in a DPA press release, “We are all saddened to learn that our colleague has died, someone I considered a personal friend. 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.”
Speaker of the House Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado, said through his office, “John Walker was my colleague as an attorney and state representative, a civil rights icon, and my friend. I am saddened by his passing, and my thoughts and prayers are with his family and friends during this time.”
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette political columnist John Brummett reflected on Walker’s life and legacy in the video below.