Arkansas Civil Rights Attorney, State Lawmaker John Walker Dies At 82

Oct 28, 2019

Rep. John Walker speaking with reporters outside the federal courthouse in Little Rock on Nov. 22, 2013 after a judge gave preliminary approval of a settlement to resolve the long-running desegregation case involving central Arkansas school districts.
Credit Michael Hibblen / KUAR News

Arkansas civil rights attorney and state lawmaker John Walker has died. He was 82. The Pulaski County Coroner’s Office says he died Monday at his home in Little Rock. A cause was not immediately reported.

Walker grew up attending segregated schools in Hope, Ark. and later represented black students in a long-running desegregation case involving schools in central Arkansas.  In 2013, after a federal judge gave preliminary approval to a settlement, Walker told reporters outside the courthouse that it's in the best interest of all students to not be divided into schools along socioeconomic lines.

"I don’t think rich people benefit by staying among rich people, nor do poor people benefit by staying among poor people," Walker said. "We are all a melting pot theoretically and that pot has to have an opportunity to melt."

The Arkansas Legislative Black Caucus said in a statement that barriers to a high quality education most offended Walker’s sense of justice.

"John Walker loved his home state. He was the embodiment of a man who fearlessly and relentlessly fought to make Arkansas a better place," said caucus Chair Joyce Elliot. "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."

Walker also filed many high profile discrimination cases. Among those he represented was former University of Arkansas basketball coach Nolan Richardson in an unsuccessful lawsuit over his 2002 firing. 

Veteran Arkansas journalist Ernie Dumas covered Walker over the decades. In an interview with KUAR News, Dumas said his impact on the state was immense.

"John is probably the motive force in the civil rights movement in Arkansas for the last, I would say, 50 or 60 years. Since the early 1960’s when he got out of college and got his law degree at Yale, started his law practice in Arkansas, and he I’m sure filed more civil rights cases in state and federal courts, probably than anyone in the south during that period," Dumas said.

In 2010, Walker was elected to the state House of Representatives as a Democrat. He was serving his fifth term, with a special election to be needed to fill Walker's seat representing District 34.

In a statement, Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a Republican, said:

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.

Democratic Party of Arkansas Chairman Michael John Gray said in a statement he was saddened to learn of the death of someone he considered to be 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.