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The state of Arkansas has been in court for three decades over its role in contributing to segregation in Pulaski County's three public school districts. It has spent more than $1 billion in reparations as a result of a 1989 agreement.
Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, in perhaps his crowning achievement as the state's chief legal officer, has achieved a miracle — "global" agreement on a deal that would end the litigation. The state has agreed to make an additional $260 million in incentive payments over four years to the three districts. If U.S. District Court Judge D. Price Marshall Jr. signs off on the deal, all lawsuits will end. These include a challenge to the proliferation of charter schools that will in time create dozens of independent school districts in Pulaski County, nearly all segregated either racially or economically.
McDaniel has even won acquiescence from the now-dominant Republican Party's legislators to a quarter-billion in spending. He's persuaded them that finality and the promise of future freed money is better than eternal struggle. All three school districts agree. The governor is on board. And lastly, Monday night, they were joined by John Walker, the 76-year-old civil rights lawyer and state representative who's toiled on the side of black children in Pulaski County for better than a half-century.
Another of Hope's famous native sons, Walker knows the lash of discrimination — of segregated schools, of denial of entrance to a white university. He knows that it was a full 16 years after the desegregation of Central High School by force of federal troops before Little Rock fully desegregated its elementary schools.
Walker is a proud and complicated man. He eventually was awarded a significant sum for years of unpaid representation of black people in his fight against state-supported segregation in Little Rock. The $2 million wasn't only for John Walker, of course, but other lawyers, support staff and experts. The fees also support a legal operation that does much more than fight the state and employers who discriminate. It organizes. It politics. It provides comfort to the hopeless — not all of them black.
Walker appreciates the things money can buy. He loves power. He'd like to run the Little Rock School District and, depending on the board and superintendents, sometimes he does. He also procrastinates. In part because he often spreads himself too thin, he can be unprepared. He often wings it on his immense intellect rather than efficient time management and preparation.
But Walker is not the demon so many white people in Little Rock and Arkansas see him as. He is a sum of many things, but when he fights in the school case he still fights, in the main, for black children. He speaks for them — and the facts certainly do — when he says 30 years and $1 billion haven't given black children equal opportunity or achievement.
Walker held out on the settlement until the Little Rock School Board agreed on Monday to give priority to schools in Southwest Little Rock with the $37.3 million in facilities funding the settlement provides the district. The lone holdout on that resolution, board member Leslie Fisken, whose Zone 3 includes predominantly white Heights and Hillcrest neighborhoods, also cast a lone vote that prevented Walker from addressing the board.
That vote against Walker was symbolic — a white board member suppressing speech by an advocate for black children who made the agreement happen. It was also fruitless, as the announcement of a settlement at the end of the meeting soon proved.
Fisken should have reflected on how Walker's settlement saved the district a good two years of last-gasp appellate court litigating, at a minimum. And perhaps more significant damage.
Settlement or not, the district's imperative to do right by the children at the root of this case isn't diminished by Monday's news. You may be sure one man in the room Monday night will remind them of that frequently.
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