Joseph Robert Booker (1895–1960)

Joseph Robert Booker was a Little Rock (Pulaski County) lawyer and a member of one of the most prominent African American families in the city in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. During his practice spanning from the 1920s to 1950s, Booker took on cases primarily relating to civil rights. A few of his most significant cases were the Arkansas “Scottsboro” Clayton-Caruthers case and the Roland Smith v. Orval Faubus case of 1959.

Joseph Robert Booker was born on September 19, 1895, in Helena (Phillips County), one of eight children of Joseph Albert Booker, who was an educator, civil rights activist, and minister, and Mary Jane Carver Booker, an educator. His father was a former slave who became a teacher by the age of sixteen or seventeen and then attended college at the Arkansas Agricultural, Mechanical, and Normal College in Pine Bluff (Jefferson County), now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, and then Roger Williams University in Nashville, Tennessee. His father was also the first president of Arkansas Baptist College in Little Rock.

Joseph R. Booker received his BA from Arkansas Baptist College in 1914, where his father resided as president. He completed his law education at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, in 1917. From 1918 to 1919, Booker served in the U.S. Army. During his military career (which encompassed part of World War I), he served as acting assistant director of the War Finance Committee and a member of the Legal Advisory Board of the State Military Affairs Committee.

On April 20, 1921, Booker married Willarda Jones, and they had two children. The couple were divorced by 1930. In 1924, Booker became an early member of Little Rock’s branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

From the 1920s to the 1950s, Booker took on cases relating to civil rights, often alongside other well-known Black lawyers of the time, such as Scipio A. Jones, John A. Hibbler, and Thurgood Marshall. On one of his earlier cases, Booker worked with Jones in the appeal of twelve African American defendants sentenced to death following the Elaine Massacre of 1919.

Eventually Booker partnered with his brother, William A. Booker, and established the law firm of Booker & Booker. In 1930, Booker & Booker joined Jones and Hibbler in suing the Little Rock Democratic Central Committee on behalf of the Arkansas Negro Democratic Association for the right of African Americans to vote in Democratic Party primaries. Another prominent case of Booker’s was the Clayton-Caruthers case, better known as the Arkansas “Scottsboro”’ case for its similarities to the Scottsboro Boys case in Alabama. In the case, Booker joined Hibbler and Jones in 1935 defending the two young African American men from Blytheville (Mississippi County) charged with the rape of a white woman.

In 1942, Booker, Jones, Hibbler, and Marshall, representing the NAACP, sued the Little Rock School District on behalf of an African American teacher, Sue Cowan Williams, for equal pay with white teachers. In 1949–1950, Booker served as president of the National Bar Association, a national African American lawyers’ group. He also was an alternate delegate to the Republican National Convention from Arkansas in 1944 and 1948.

Booker was a local “cooperating attorney” with the NAACP in at least six cases during the 1950s, including cases stemming from the 1957 desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock. Booker was involved in legal action taken against a 1959 state act requiring teachers to list the organizations to which they belonged, a law instituted to uncover teachers who were members of or sympathetic to the NAACP or in favor of desegregation. Another case of note was Roland Smith v. Orval Faubus (1959), in which Black ministers brought a suit against the State Sovereignty Commission before the Arkansas Supreme Court on September 14, 1959. This suit argued that the series of acts—Acts 83 and 85 of 1957—that created the commission to “protect the sovereignty of the state from the federal government” in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas decision and set regulations for the commission were void. The appellants feared that the commission could conduct investigations or examinations of the records, books, documents, and other papers of anyone as desired without a search warrant or judicial process, and also that the commission’s authority could be racially motivated and used to target specific groups that were against segregation. The chancery court held both acts to be valid and dismissed the complaint. A rehearing was denied on October 19, 1959.

Booker died on July 31, 1960, in Little Rock. He is buried at Haven of Rest Cemetery. Among the honors given to Booker is the naming of a school building in his memory. The Booker school, originally a junior high school, opened in 1963 in Little Rock. In 1982, it was converted into an elementary school and then in 1983 the Little Rock School District changed it to Booker Arts Magnet Elementary School. The school closed in 2022.

For additional information:
Booker Magnet. History and Archives of the LRSD, Little Rock School District.

“Joseph Booker Family Photograph.” Photograph with detail biographical note. Persistence of the Spirit Collection. Arkansas State Archives, Little Rock, Arkansas.

“Joseph Robert (J. R.) Booker.” Arkansas Black Lawyers. https://arkansasblacklawyers.uark.edu/lawyers/jrbooker.html (accessed December 12, 2023).

Smith v. Faubus, 230 Ark. 831 (1959), Arkansas Supreme Court Briefs and Records, Special Collections, University of Arkansas at Little Rock William H. Bowen School of Law/Pulaski County Law Library, Little Rock, Arkansas.

Emily Housdan
University of Arkansas at Little Rock

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