By Caleb Hennington
Digital Content Editor
Each February, Black History Month is celebrated throughout the United States as a way to remember the amazing contributions and achievements of black Americans and other people of African descent throughout history.
Throughout February, we are celebrating the groundbreaking achievements of black Americans in the Arkansas United Methodist Church.
John Winfield Walker: attorney, state representative, and a devoted United Methodist
This week, we are recognizing the achievements of former Arkansas State Representative John Winfield Walker (June 3, 1937 – Oct. 28, 2019).
Walker was born in Hope, Arkansas. In 1954, Walker had the distinction of being the first African American undergraduate student admitted to the University of Texas after the Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954. However, because of lingering racism following the Supreme Court decision, Walker was not allowed to attend the University of Texas. Instead, he returned to his home state and graduated from Arkansas AM&N — now the University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff — in 1958 with a degree in Sociology. Walker had the unique privilege of hearing Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speak at his graduation ceremony.
Walker would go on to receive a master’s degree from New York University in 1961 and a law degree from Yale University in 1964.
Walker returned to Arkansas in 1968 and set up a general practice of law in Little Rock with an emphasis on civil rights cases. That same year, he opened one of the first racially integrated law firms in the South, Walker and Chachkin.
Throughout his career as an attorney, Walker was involved in a majority of reported cases that involved racial discrimination in the state of Arkansas. One of his landmark cases was the Pulaski County school desegregation case. The federal lawsuit, which first came up in 1982, said that three school districts in Pulaski County were unconstitutionally segregated. Walker fought tirelessly on behalf of black students and parents in this case until his death in 2019.
Walker also had a nearly decade-long career as a state politician, elected as the representative for District 34 since 2011.
Walker’s focus was on education as a state representative and was known for his smart, detailed questioning of other members of the Arkansas legislature. Upon his death, many people commended his bipartisanship and ability to work with all people.
But above all, Walker was a man of faith and was a devoted member of his United Methodist Church, Wesley Chapel UMC in Little Rock, for more than 50 years.
Wesley Chapel’s pastor, the Rev. Ronnie Miller-Yow, had this to say about the life and legacy of Walker:
“Brother Walker would often tell me this: ‘Reverend, you don’t have to come from a big place to make a big impact.’ He would say that to me as a young pastor. I met him when I was 29. I believe his point to me at the tender age of 29 was simply to serve God. It’s not about the biggest steeple, but about participating in the work of Jesus Christ on each. The work found in Luke 4:18-19 that says, ‘…to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim freedom to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’ This is the Life that brother Walker tried to live and he inspired others to join him in that quest.”
Thank you, John Walker, for your service to your city, your state, and your United Methodist Church.
We celebrate the contributions of black Americans every year in February, but the immeasurable improvements to our society that black Americans have gifted the world should be honored each and every day.