A TRIBUTE TO JOHN W. WALKER

Civil rights attorney and Arkansas State Representative John Winfred Walker died on Monday, October 28, 2019, at his home in Little Rock, Arkansas.  The following manuscript is from the tribute I paid to him on Friday, November 1, 2019, during the celebration of his life at St. Mark Baptist Church in Little Rock.


TRIBUTE TO JOHN W. WALKER
©Wendell Griffen, 2019
Friday, November 1, 2019, 11 A.M.
St. Mark Baptist Church
Little Rock, Arkansas

PASTOR RONNIE MILLER-YOW[1]
PASTOR PHILLIP POINTER[2]
REVEREND CLERGY
BELOVED FAMILY OF JOHN W. WALKER
PUBLIC OFFICIALS
MEMBERS OF THE LEGAL COMMUNITY
BROTHERS AND SISTERS IN THE FAMILY OF GOD

       I will forever be thankful to God for the blessing of John Walker’s fellowship and example, and I thank his family for permitting me to pay tribute to him in this hallowed place. 

Yesterday was All Saints Eve.[3] Today, November 1, is All Saints Day.  It is not lost on me that we are in this hallowed place on All Saints Day to celebrate the life and service of a patriarch, brother, colleague, neighbor, and follower of Jesus. 

John Walker’s political colleagues paid tribute to his cordiality, civility, thoroughness, and decorum as a state legislator during the public gathering at the State Capitol yesterday.  John’s loved ones, friends, fellow congregants at Wesley United Methodist Church, and his grateful colleagues paid tribute to his stewardship and generous commitment to serve others during the visitation last night at Wesley.  I was moved and comforted by what each person shared. 

I offer tribute to John Walker as a role model, mentor, colleague, and lawyer.  In that regard, I ask that all lawyers, judges, law professors, and court officials present today stand.  Thank you.  Please be seated.  Now, I ask that all persons who have been represented by John Walker stand.  Please be seated.  Lastly, I ask that all persons who have been mentored, counseled, and encouraged by John Walker as lawyers stand.  Thank you.  Please be seated. 

My tribute to John Walker is professional and personal.  I met him in 1979 when I became a lawyer. For forty years we worked in different realms of our shared calling.  I marveled at John’s principled and fierce advocacy.  And, like many others, I was challenged by his example. 

Over time, our professional friendship became a personal fellowship, and ultimately, a sense of comradeship. I thank God for my John Walker, my comrade. 

Several years ago, John and I made a pact that the “longest liver” would pay tribute to the first to pass on.  He joked that we were the two most hated black men in Arkansas.  What a compliment!  John Walker claimed me as his comrade as target of their scorn and hatred.  I will wear that title with honor for the rest of my days.

The third chapter of Luke’s Gospel in the New Testament has this strange moving introduction. 

Luke 3:1-6
3In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, 2during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,
‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
   make his paths straight.
5 Every valley shall be filled,
   and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
   and the rough ways made smooth;
6 and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” ’
       
I am licensed as a lawyer and a preacher, professions that use words as tools, so allow me to use my tools to pay tribute to John Walker by setting that passage in our context. 

In the fifth year of the sixth decade of the 20th Century, when Lyndon Baines Johnson was President of the United States, Orval Eugene Faubus was Governor of Arkansas, John L. McClellan and J. William Fulbright were Senators, and Billy Graham and Norman Vincent Peale were high priests of white supremacy, religious nationalism, sacralized capitalism, and patriarchy, the word of God came to John Walker in the wilderness known as Arkansas. 

   Yes, John Walker had a law license and worked in courtrooms and civic buildings across this nation.  Yes, his text was the U.S. Constitution, and more specifically the Bill of Rights, the 14th and 15th Amendments, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.   It is true that he did not have a preacher’s license.  

     But make no mistake, John the Walker was a prophet.  The word of God had come to him, and he was on a mission from God to cry out in the wilderness of Arkansas and across this nation on behalf of God’s oppressed children.  John the Walker was God’s prophet on behalf of children denied equal protection and due process by a racist education system infested from top to bottom with people whose minds and spirits were poisoned by white supremacy and wealth privilege. 

      Where did John Walker get such strength, such boldness, so much courage to drive, fly, and walk into places that were bastions of bigotry, and empires of iniquity and demand justice for God’s oppressed people?  I argue that the Spirit of God was on him.  And that reminds me of a passage from the Hebrew Testament that is almost never read, let alone pondered.  The second chapter of Ezekiel has this passage.

Ezekiel 2:1-6

2He said to me: O mortal, stand up on your feet, and I will speak with you. 2And when he spoke to me, a spirit entered into me and set me on my feet; and I heard him speaking to me. 3He said to me, Mortal, I am sending you to the people of Israel, to a nation of rebels who have rebelled against me; they and their ancestors have transgressed against me to this very day. 4The descendants are impudent and stubborn. I am sending you to them, and you shall say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord God.’ 5Whether they hear or refuse to hear (for they are a rebellious house), they shall know that there has been a prophet among them. 6And you, O mortal, do not be afraid of them, and do not be afraid of their words, though briers and thorns surround you and you live among scorpions; do not be afraid of their words, and do not be dismayed at their looks, for they are a rebellious house.
      
      In the fifth year of the sixth decade of the 20th Century, when the rulers of this state were openly and defiantly determined to maintain white supremacy, patriarchy, and wealth privilege, the Spirit of God sent John Walker to drive, fly, and walk into places in Arkansas and across the United States that were bastions of bigotry, and empires of iniquity.  The Spirit of God sent John Walker to demand justice for God’s oppressed people.  The Spirit of God sent John Walker to a society and state run by people whose defiance to God and freedom and justice was ingrained, inbred, and ancestral.

John Walker was hated – yes, hated – because he loved justice and wasn’t afraid to fight for it.  He was cursed, despised, and maligned because he fought bullies, protected vulnerable persons, and refused to suffer fools and hypocrites.  Tyrants, bigots, white supremacists, and the people who front for them knew, hated, and feared this black man because he boldly stripped off their costumes of practiced hypocrisy and exposed their oppressive tyranny. 
      
Because the Spirit of God sent and empowered him, John Walker did not fear the FBI.  He did not fear corrupt cops and racist judges.  His reputation for fierce advocacy and his devotion to justice was awesome and legendary.  Like John the Baptist, John the Walker was a voice in the wilderness who did not whisper in hushed tones.  He was not apologetic. 

He did wear stylish hats, but he was never a hat-in-hand supplicant.  John Walker was a prophet from God.  He demanded justice in God’s name for God’s people in God’s world.  And he didn’t care what anyone else thought about him as he did so.

     John deserved the highest honors this society can bestow.  But because John knew that he lived in a rebellious house, he wasn’t disappointed by not getting them. 

He knew he lived in a rebellious house.  So he wasn’t disappointed that the Political Animals Club, Rotary Club, and Chamber of Commerce never invited him to talk about how to fix the education system. 

John knew he lived in a rebellious house.  So he wasn’t disappointed or disturbed when newspaper editors scorned him. 

John knew he lived in a rebellious house.  So he wasn’t impressed when self-righteous and self-serving politicians and pundits pimped his prestige while they questioned his relevance. 

The descendants are impudent and stubborn. I am sending you to them, and you shall say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord God.’ 5Whether they hear or refuse to hear (for they are a rebellious house), they shall know that there has been a prophet among them.

Well done, my brother prophet!  Well done!  You have been faithful and fearless.  You have been faithful and effective.  You have been faithful and kind.  You have been a faithful and generous father, brother, confidante, and comrade.  You have been faithful, prophet.  Faithful! 

I’ll miss you.  Yet I take comfort that you have joined the Hall of Fame that does not depend on nominations from Senators and Presidents.  You have taken your place in the company of Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Richard Allen, Nat Turner, Thurgood Marshall, Wiley Branton, L. C. and Daisy Bates, W. Harold Flowers, George Howard, Perlesta Hollingsworth, A Leon Higginbotham, Elijah Cummings, Barbara Jordan, and John Conyers. 

You stood your watch.  You served your tour with valor, and consummate courage and integrity.  You are now relieved of duty to receive honors only God is fit to bestow on you. 

Rest John.  Rest well and in peace.  We have the watch and will continue the work until we meet again.



[1] Wesley United Methodist Church, Little Rock, AR (home congregation of John W. Walker).
[2] St. Mark Baptist Church, Little Rock, AR (host congregation for the service).
[3] Popularly known as Halloween.

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