Noted civil rights activist William “Sonny” Walker returned home Thursday evening, sharing memories and swapping views on current social challenges in a Winthrop Rockefeller Centennial Celebration forum at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff.
Walker, saluted for his contributions to civil rights both within the state and nationally, was joined by fellow Southeast Arkansas natives UAPB Chancellor Lawrence A. Davis Jr. and Civil Rights activist Ozell Sutton for a panel discussion moderated by long-time Little Rock attorney Philip E. Kaplan.
Sutton, who in 1950 joined The Arkansas Democrat as the state’s first reporter for a white-owned newspaper, was a special assistant to Rockefeller, focusing on race relations. Walker, under Rockefeller, became the first black cabinet member of a Southern governor, directing the Arkansas State Economic Opportunity Office. Davis, a Pine Bluff native, has been the UAPB chancellor since 1991.
The three had known one another prior to Rockefeller’s 1966 election as the state’s first Republican governor since reconstruction. Rockefeller stepped down after completing a second two-year term which he won in 1968.
Walker appeared happy to be in Pine Bluff and at UAPB.
“I love this city,” he said, adding that his UAPB education had helped in preparing him for his civil rights efforts. He said he had teased Sutton, a Gould native, when they were young about Walker’s having to rise earlier to travel to Gould so the pair could pick cotton together there. Both now reside in Atlanta.
Walker also spoke of his affection for the former all-black Merrill High School here, where his and Davis’ late fathers were classmates.
Sutton related difficulties he encountered in obtaining his high school diploma after graduating from Gould’s black school, which at the time offered only eight grades. Sutton, valedictorian of his graduating class there, had to move to Little Rock to complete the 12th grade, which he couldn’t do until having to take time off for Marine Corps service in World War II.
Davis, who was 4 when his late father, Lawrence A. Davis Sr. became president of AM&N College (now UAPB) in 1943, said his father’s position enabled the family to become familiar with a number of leading whites here.
Davis said that even though race relations have improved over time, some state leaders still believe that blacks don’t “belong in college.” Expressing appreciation for the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s passive approach to civil rights, Davis admitted that he’s “not non-violent.”
Acknowledging that he has “seen and been a part of tremendous change” during his lifetime, Walker recalled that during Rockefeller’s governorship, blacks in the state who admitted membership in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People would often be fired by their white bosses.
Thursday was the 39th anniversary of Rockefeller’s 1973 death at the age of 60, prompting Kaplan to ask the panelists to relate an appreciation of the millionaire governor.
“He helped to make Arkansas a bi-partisan state,” said Davis, who pointed out that Rockefeller won election despite a small number of black and other Republicans at the time.
“Winthrop Rockefeller brought Arkansas up after (Gov. Orval) Faubus had destroyed it,” opined Sutton.
“He set a new tone, not just in government, but in the private sector and the community as well,” replied Walker.