William "Sonny" Walker (1933–2016)

William “Sonny” Walker was an educator and civil rights activist who went on to serve in positions in local, state, and federal government, becoming the first person of color to serve in the cabinet of a southern governor.

Sonny Walker was born on December 13, 1933, in Pine Bluff (Jefferson County). His parents were the Reverend James David Walker and Mary Coleman Walker; they later divorced, and his father married Nettie Harris. Early influences in his life included the Boy Scouts of America, gospel choir, drama and speech organizations, and community education through social and sports activities at Merrill High School; Arkansas Agricultural, Mechanical, and Normal College (now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff); and Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity.

After receiving a BA from Arkansas AM&N College, Walker coached sports and taught classes in Camden (Ouachita County). He moved to Little Rock (Pulaski County) to teach Honors English at Horace Mann High School and served as proctor of the Debate and Drama Club. He shared his love of music as the Sunday afternoon disc jockey for KOKY radio station, highlighting the sounds of jazz. He was a contributing writer to the Arkansas State Press, with his column, “Bearcats Fact,” sharing information on students at Horace Mann. His professional circle included L. C. and Daisy Bates and the Little Rock Nine, and he helped to prepare the Nine for the 1957 desegregation of Central High School.

He continued his education at Arizona State University, the University of Oklahoma, the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (Washington County), and the Federal Executive Institute. He was awarded by an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters by Bennett College in Greensboro, North Carolina, where he was a member of its board of trustees.

Walker managed the 1966 campaign of T. E. Patterson, the first African American elected to the Little Rock School Board. He served as Department of Classroom Teachers president from 1964 to 1965. He was the first Head Start director of the Crusade for Opportunity in Syracuse, New York. He served as director of the Economic Opportunity Agency (EOA) of Little Rock and Pulaski County. He became the first African American to head the Arkansas State Economic Opportunity Office, serving under Winthrop Rockefeller; this also made him the first person of color at this level in the cabinet of a governor in the South.

In a 1968 interview with the Little Rock Jaycees, Walker described his philosophy of “planting seeds of good will.” He spoke of promoting programs that benefit the whole community, using a mobile recreation unit as an example. The unit was equipped with games like volleyball, basketball, and ping-pong, and had a public address system and stage. It would be used in areas where parks were not easily accessible to neighborhoods. The moderator also addressed issues of employment, especially that some in the black community would not work consistently, resulting in high turnover in certain positions. Walker stated that preparation for a position was conducive to doors being open for the position, adding that diplomas did not always guarantee qualification for a job. He cited his personal example of having limited options of fields of employment relative to his birth in society. His goal as head of the Arkansas State Economic Opportunity Office was to “feel the pulse” of the entire community.

Walker moved to Atlanta, Georgia, in 1972, and served as the regional director of the Office of Economic Opportunity, appointed by President Richard Nixon. He served as executive director and chief operating officer of the King Center for Nonviolent Social Change and was a speechwriter for Coretta Scott King. In 1995, he formed the Sonny Walker Group, his own consulting firm, focusing on management and social development of businesses.

Walker died on June 14, 2016, and is buried in Elm Lawn Cemetery in Little Rock. He was survived by four children.

For additional information:
Memorial Program for Services Held June 24, 2016, Second Baptist Church, Little Rock, Arkansas, Reverend Dr. Kevin A. Kelly, Officiating.

Walker, William Sonny. “Bearcats Facts.” Arkansas State Press, September 13, 1957, p. 8.

“William ‘Sonny’ Walker.” The History Makers. http://www.thehistorymakers.com/biography/william-sonny-walker (accessed September 15, 2020).

Rhonda Stewart
Butler Center for Arkansas Studies


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