John Thomas "Jack" Lavey (1932–2014)

John Thomas “Jack” Lavey was one of a handful of Arkansas lawyers who made equality claims for African Americans in courts and defended civil rights activists who were jailed during the turbulent civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s. His cases in federal courts established the right of African Americans and women to equal pay and promotions in public and private workplaces.

Jack Lavey was born on October 19, 1932, in a northern suburb of Boston, Massachusetts, to Francis Lavey and Theresa Lavey. His mother was Italian, and his father, who was Irish, was a telephone lineman and a union member. Lavey played football and graduated from the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. He received a law degree from the New England School of Law in Boston. He was an officer in the Marine Corps Judge Advocate General Corps and then a legal staff member at the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in Washington DC, where he met and married Kay Gallager of Auburn, New York. They had three children.

After three years as a field attorney for the NLRB in Fort Worth, Texas, he joined the Little Rock (Pulaski County) law firm headed by former Arkansas governor Sid McMath, which practiced personal-injury law and represented unions. Lavey had been impressed that McMath and his partners were among the few white leaders in Arkansas who publicly opposed Governor Orval E. Faubus during the 1957 desegregation crisis at Little Rock Central High. Three years later, Lavey joined Arkansas’s first racially integrated law firm, led by John W. Walker, who for the next forty-five years was the lead attorney in most of the civil rights litigation in the state. After Lavey left the firm and opened his own labor-law practice in 1971, he and Walker sometimes collaborated on discrimination suits, as they did in 2002 when they represented Nolan Richardson, the black basketball coach of the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (Washington County) who was fired for public comments that irked the university’s administration. Their suit was unsuccessful.

Lavey established his reputation as a nervy and tough-minded lawyer in the decade after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King in 1968, when demonstrations and integration initiatives led to extreme tensions and often violence in towns of eastern and southern Arkansas. After black and white workers who were hired at Texarkana (Miller County) in the Model Cities program were accused of agitating for integration, the new city manager fired a black organizer and a white organizer. Lavey sued in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Arkansas, alleging that their firings violated their constitutional rights of due process, equal protection, and free association. Judge Oren Harris ruled that the city could fire them because fraternizing among people of different races upset white people in the community and rendered the employees ineffective. The Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, siding with Lavey, ruled that neither the state nor a city could discriminate against a person because of his or her race or that of companions, or act “in any way” to encourage segregation.

The 1969 creation of a clinic for low-income citizens by the Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) in Marianna (Lee County) with federal support led to tensions in the county because the clinic served black residents. Lavey sued the Lee County Hospital because it would not give doctors at the clinic hospital privileges or admit their patients; he won an order reversing the policies. When community leaders pressured Governor Dale Bumpers in 1971 to veto the VISTA program, the new governor, who was a friend of Lavey, continued it.

A widely publicized walk (March Against Fear) from the Mississippi River in 1969 through eastern Arkansas towns by a young black man named Lance Watson (a.k.a. “Sweet Willie Wine”) was followed by demonstrations by young African Americans in Forrest City (St. Francis County) and other communities. They were met by a mob in one instance, and demonstrators were arrested on such charges as spitting on the sidewalk and “being a disorderly person.” Lavey and other members of the Walker firm represented the jailed demonstrators, but they were uniformly convicted.

In 1969, Lavey and several other lawyers met with Little Rock businessman Fred K. Darragh to establish an Arkansas affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), a response to the continuing enactment of laws to perpetuate segregation and an Arkansas Supreme Court ruling upholding an old Arkansas law banning the teaching of evolution in schools.

After U.S. Representative Wilbur D. Mills got a proposed six-lane east-west expressway through Little Rock designated as an Interstate highway in 1970 (it became Interstate 630), Lavey sued the state and federal highway agencies and the City of Little Rock in 1973 to block construction of the eastern half of the highway, alleging that the agencies had not prepared for the environmental consequences. Lavey, who represented poor and black neighborhoods south and east of the planned route, said the highway would destroy the historic black business district, place a discriminatory burden on the neighborhoods by taking people’s homes and businesses, promote housing segregation, and erect a permanent barrier between the old and poorer neighborhoods and the more affluent and modern neighborhoods and districts to the north. Federal district and appellate courts granted Lavey’s request for an injunction because the government environmental impact study was inadequate. Work on the expressway stopped for more than five years. When a new impact report was approved in 1979, the eastern segment ran through a deep cut in the earth to spare the adjoining neighborhoods the noise and unsightliness of the highway. The freeway was finished in 1985, with Lavey’s predicted effects upon the neighborhoods.

Lavey represented labor unions in Arkansas throughout his career in the state, and he was considered by the Clinton administration for appointment to the National Labor Relations Board.

Lavey died on March 24, 2014. His ashes are interred at Our Lady of Holy Souls Church at Little Rock.

For additional information:
“Civil-Rights Lawyer Lavey Dies at 81.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, March 26, 2014, p. 7B.

Obituary of John T. “Jack” Lavey. Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, March 26, 2014, p. 6B.

Parry, Janine A. “What Women Wanted: The Arkansas Governors’ Commissions on the Status of Women and the ERA.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 59 (Autumn 2000): 265–298.

Ernest Dumas
Little Rock, Arkansas


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