“We must all learn to live together as brothers in this world or we will all die together as fools. We must work passionately and unremittingly for first-class citizenship. But we must not use second-class methods to get it…Go home determined to revolt against segregation and discrimination everywhere.” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said this in a commencement speech in 1958 at Arkansas AM&N College (now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff). One of the graduating seniors in his audience that day was Arkansas native John W. Walker.
A season of change was germinating in the South including Arkansas, where the Little Rock Nine had fought to enroll at segregated Little Rock Central High School in the fall of 1957. Dr. King was not yet 30 but had gained national prominence in the Montgomery Alabama bus boycott and was inspiring countless other young people like John and me who chafed at the idea of racial discrimination and determined to be at the forefront of the movement for racial change.
John became one of the most influential civil rights attorneys in the entire south and a five-term member of the Arkansas House of Representatives where he served until his death this past October. He was also my friend, law school classmate, and fellow NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF) intern and board member. He spent his whole life relentlessly using the legal system to follow Dr. King’s mandate to fight for equal citizenship for African Americans and others left behind, revolting against segregation and discrimination everywhere, including his home state.
By the time he graduated from Arkansas AM&N John already had been involved in a dramatic case challenging racial discrimination. He was the first Black undergraduate admitted to the University of Texas in 1954 after Brown v. Board of Education, but the university decided to revoke the offers of admission to Black students before the school year began. He chose to attend the historically Black Arkansas AM&N, where he excelled, earned a master’s degree from New York University and his law degree from Yale University in 1964. The civil rights movement was bringing a wide range of legal challenges and LDF had established an internship program for new lawyers who wanted to practice in the South after a year of training with LDF’s extraordinary New York lawyers who included Jack Greenberg, Constance Baker Motley, Derrick Bell, and James Nabrit III. Julius Chambers and I were lucky enough to serve as the first two LDF interns, and John Walker was the third.
He quickly established his practice in Little Rock, opening one of the first racially integrated law firms in the South, and became an LDF cooperating attorney working on education, death penalty, and voting rights cases among others. From 1965 John was personally involved in most of the important reported cases involving racial discrimination in Arkansas.
The Little Rock school desegregation case began during his senior year in college and became one of his major battles over more than three decades going back and forth in the courts. The segregationists never gave up their attempts to obstruct and deny our Black children’s rights to equal education.
Ted Shaw, former Legal Defense Fund President and Director-Counsel, who worked with John on that case called John, “a superb trial lawyer who dominated courtrooms with lawyerly charisma and crackling cross-examination…More than anything else, I remember how people would come up to John in backwoods catfish and po’ boy joints to shake his hand and thank him for what he had done or was doing as he represented them. No matter where we went, people knew John Walker and he knew them. He represented them in employment discrimination, voting rights, education, housing, and other civil rights cases. And he knew them. He was a thorn in the side of the powerful and a warrior on behalf of the disadvantaged. In Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Texas, John Walker was the civil rights lawyer.”
John decided to seek public office and in 2010 became an Arkansas state legislator to continue fighting for equal justice and opportunity as he had in the courtroom. Although he was often at odds with the most powerful forces in Arkansas his body laid in state at the Arkansas State Capitol with flags at half-staff. Tributes poured in from across the state and nation—powerful symbols of the transforming change he fought so hard to achieve for those left behind.
How many young people today find such a passionate calling? It was an extraordinary privilege to be a young lawyer at the height of the civil rights movement alongside colleagues like John when there was so much work to be done. There is still so much work to be done to break down the barriers—many more subtle but equally real that keep every child from having equal access to opportunity in America. Today, when our nation is at risk of moving dangerously backwards, the work continues and is as urgent as it ever was with nearly 12 million children still living in poverty and many more trapped in inequitably funded and racially segregated schools. The Legal Defense Fund remembered that John “once noted that he made a promise to himself early on in life that, in retrospect, now aptly captures the essence of his career: ‘I would not engage in prejudice, or sit idly by while someone else did.’” I am so grateful for his example and tireless work for justice, for our young and all of us. Let’s praise his life but emulate his example.
Marian Wright Edelman is Founder and President Emerita of the Children’s Defense Fund