Today, LDF mourns the loss of legendary civil rights attorney and LDF Senior Board member, John W. Walker. A native of Arkansas, Mr. Walker dedicated his career to championing racial justice as one of the most influential lawyers in that state. He passed away on October 28th at his home in Little Rock, Arkansas. He was 82 years old.
“John Walker was truly a civil rights giant,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, President and Director-Counsel of LDF. “For more than half a century, John Walker has been a member of the LDF family. He was one of our first legal interns and then for decades worked with us as a cooperating attorney – litigating education, death penalty, and voting rights cases with us, and providing critical local knowledge to successive generations of LDF lawyers litigating in the Arkansas courts. He joined the LDF board in 1977 and has served as a Senior Board Member since 2012, advising five successive Director-Counsels and providing generous support to LDF.”
Ifill continued, “A great one has left us. Our thoughts are with his family and friends, and his many colleagues and clients across the country, as they grieve his loss.”
John W. Walker was born in Hope, Arkansas in 1937. He graduated from Jack Yates High School in Houston, Texas in 1954. That same year, Mr. Walker was accepted to the University of Texas, becoming the first Black undergraduate student to be admitted to the school after the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling.
However, as Mr. Walker described, he and several other Black students were subsequently de-admitted from the university “for racial reasons” shortly before they were due to start their semesters. Mr. Walker ultimately attended Arkansas A M & N College in Pine Bluff and graduated with a degree in sociology in 1958. He went on to receive a master’s degree from New York University in 1961 and a law degree from Yale University in 1964.
After he graduated from Yale, Mr. Walker became LDF’s third intern, following Julius Chambers (who decades later became LDF’s third Director-Counsel) and Marian Wright Edelman (who later founded the Children’s Defense Fund). In 1965, he started a private civil rights and general practice law firm in Little Rock and, in 1968, he opened one of the first racially-integrated law firms in the South, with the support of LDF. His Little Rock law firm would serve as the base for Mr. Walker’s many years of immensely successful civil rights litigation.
In fact, as Walker noted in his biography on his present-day law firm’s website, from 1965 onward he was “personally involved in most of the reported cases … [involving] racial discrimination in the state of Arkansas.” Walker added that many of these cases were “… landmark, having created new law[s] and opened doors to schoolhouses and workplaces throughout the state of Arkansas and surrounding states.”
Elaine Jones, LDF’s fourth President and Director-Counsel, first met John Walker in 1970. Reached this week, Jones remembered, “At LDF, when one heard the words ‘Little Rock,’ the mind immediately raced to John Walker, Esq. He was our ‘go to’ counsel, the one with whom LDF could partner to challenge injustice, unfairness, and racial discrimination in the courts. For more than five decades, John shared generously with LDF the best of himself: his time, extraordinary talents, and financial resources.”
Mr. Walker was perhaps best known for his tireless work on the Little Rock School District desegregation case, in which he unflinchingly fought for decades to desegregate the district’s schools and ensure that multiple generations of Black students had equal access to educational opportunities. In addition to his work on educational equality, Walker also took on – and won – multiple landmark cases addressing employment and housing discrimination against African Americans.
Walker actively practiced law throughout the rest of his life, most recently serving as a principal at his own John W. Walker law firm. He was a fixture in Little Rock, beloved by the hundreds of ordinary individuals and families he helped over the course of his career.
Ted Shaw, LDF’s fifth President and Director-Counsel, litigated education cases with John Walker in Arkansas and remembered him as “a superb trial lawyer who dominated courtrooms with lawyerly charisma and crackling cross-examination.” Shaw added, “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.”
Walker became a powerful voice in Arkansas politics after he was first elected to serve in the state’s House of Representatives on behalf of its 34th district in 2010. Walker was subsequently re-elected multiple times and was serving his fifth term in office at the time of his death. During his tenure as an elected official, Mr. Walker similarly championed civil rights, always working to ensure that proposed legislation did not perpetuate any type of unequal treatment against African Americans and other communities of color.
Throughout his storied career, Mr. Walker received many honors for his tireless racial justice work. He was selected as Lawyer of the Year by the Arkansas Bar Association and also received national awards from the National Bar Association, the American Trial Lawyers Association, and the American Civil Liberties Union.
In his personal life, Mr. Walker was a man of family and faith. He was a proud, lifelong member of the United Methodist denomination and an active member of the Wesley United Methodist Church. He is survived by five children, 13 grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren.
Mr. Walker fearlessly and proudly advanced civil rights in the United States, always remaining committed to the ideals of justice and equality. In fact, Walker 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.”
John W. Walker never shied away from standing up for what he believed was right. And his unwavering commitment to civil rights work changed Arkansas and the nation forever — and for the better.
The arrangements for Mr. Walker’s Services are as follows:
More Tributes to John W. Walker:
“It was my great good fortune and honor to have joined John Walker’s law practice following my graduation from law school while working for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. John’s practice was both general and at the same time specialized in the area of civil rights and racial equality. Although the financial support made possible by the Legal Defense Fund did not continue because of other demands, internal and external, on the Fund’s resources, the experience and knowledge that I gained in that first year became the bedrock of all my later work in the area of civil rights and, most particularly, in school desegregation. Because of peculiarities in the requirements for formal admission to the New York Bar were complex at that time, Arkansas was the first state in which I was formally admitted to practice, and — fifty years later — I was honored by being granted lifetime admission to the Arkansas Bar without the requirement of further annual dues payments. My daughters spent some of the happiest years of their lives in Arkansas and it is an understatement to say that John’s guidance and support were critical to my development as a lawyer. I know that John served in the Arkansas House and was dedicated to enriching and preserving the lives of all residents and citizens of the state — regardless of race or nationality. He was truly a man for all seasons, and all persons, and he will be greatly missed.”
— Norman Chachkin, former law partner with Mr. Walker and former LDF Litigation Director
“John Walker was born in the segregated community of Hope, Arkansas and went on to become one of the greatest champions of civil rights and racial justice. Mr. Walker repeatedly lent his reputation and counsel to LDF by serving as a cooperating attorney in myriad civil rights cases in Arkansas, including a recent death penalty case in which LDF successfully convinced the Arkansas courts to vacate the death sentence of a young Black man due to the gross ineffectiveness of his trial attorney.”
— Jin Hee Lee, LDF Senior Deputy Director of Litigation