William ‘Sonny’ Walker, 82: Lifelong advocate for civil rights

William “Sonny” Walker, a longtime resident of Atlanta, was a civil rights activist and civic leader committed to improving the lives of others. He was an influential force for a host of causes, such as integrating schools, making Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a state and national holiday, and founding one of the first Head Start education programs.

Walker, 82, died on June 14 after a brief illness.

Curley M. Dossman Jr., chairman of 100 Black Men of America, Inc., of which Walker was a former Atlanta chapter president, said Walker was a fierce advocate for causes he believed in. “Once Sonny made up his mind to do something, no matter what kind of power you think you had, nobody was going to change it.

“Call it principled passion,” Dossman, president of the Georgia-Pacific Foundation, recalled at Walker’s funeral service. “Sonny actively sought ways to make things how they should be, instead of passively accepting things as they were. In as much as he was a consensus builder, if Sonny saw something that was not right in his eyes, he would lead a cause to correct it. He was a leader who was an advocate in just about everything he did.”

A 100 Black Men proclamation honoring Walker, says in part, “We will deeply miss his extraordinary dedication to America’s most precious asset: its youth.”

William “Sonny” Walker was born on Dec. 13, 1933, in Pine Bluff, Ark., to the late Mary Coleman and the Rev. James David Walker. He received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Arkansas and taught in Arkansas public schools. He continued his education at Arizona State University, the University of Oklahoma, the University of Arkansas and The Federal Executive Institute, receiving graduate degrees in school counseling and school administration. He later served as chairman of the board of Bennett College, a small, private, historically black liberal arts college for women in Greensboro, N.C., which awarded him an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree.

After the Supreme Court’s landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, Walker and fellow civil rights activist Ozelle Sutton helped prepare the African-American students known as the Little Rock Nine to integrate Little Rock Central High in 1957, including taking the teenagers to and from school.

In 1965, Walker founded the Crusade for Opportunity, one of the first Head Start programs. He also directed the Economic Opportunity Agency of Little Rock and Pulsaki County. He worked tirelessly to promote integration, and in 1969 he was named Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller’s head of the Arkansas State Economic Opportunity Office – the first African-American to hold such a position in a Southern governor’s cabinet.

Walker moved to Atlanta in 1972, where he was a division director for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Renewal. In 1976 he became a member of the board of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, where he worked closely with Coretta Scott King and eventually became one of her speechwriters. He also worked with her and the King Holiday Commission to establish that national and state holiday. He later served as executive director of The King Center.

Throughout his life, Walker enjoyed connecting people looking for job opportunities with community and organization leaders. That eventually inspired him to form the Sonny Walker Group, a consulting company specializing in networking, marketing and employee training.

He was an active member of Friendship Baptist Church and his many board memberships included Morris Brown College, the Butler Street YMCA, EduPac political action committee and the Georgia Partnership for Education Excellence.

Walker’s daughter Cheryl Walker of Little Rock describes her father, recipient of many community-service awards, as one of the pioneer civil rights activists and a man who cared deeply about the welfare of other people, his family and his community.

“He was very popular in the community,” she said. “People loved him, and he was always helping somebody. He opened doors and left them open for people to come through.”

In addition to his daughter, Cheryl, Walker is survived by his other three children: James “Jimmy” Walker ; William L. “Bill” Walker Jr.; and Lesli Walker Williams, all of Little Rock; seven grandchildren; and 18 great-grandchildren.