Black History Legislation Approved By House Committee

The bill calls for the inclusion of Arkansas civil rights leaders in teaching materials.

Photo courtesy: NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund

House Bill 1029 easily passed in the House Committee on Education yesterday morning. Rep. Fred Allen, a Democrat from Little Rock, is lead sponsor of the bill, which advocates for the inclusion of certain Arkansas civil rights leaders in African American history teaching materials in public schools. 

Rep. Allen ran a similar bill in 2019 that became law. It specifically names Martin Luther King Jr. as one of the civil rights leaders to be discussed when teaching Black history. The new bill adds the late John W. Walker, a former Democratic member of the Arkansas House of Representatives who Allen described as a civil rights pioneer and unique historical figure in the state. 

“Born in Hope, Arkansas, John. W. Walker always demonstrated his relentless hope that we in Arkansas would one day live up to the ideals of civil rights,” Allen said. “He was truly one of our state’s greatest civil rights heroes.”

Walker was the first African American from Arkansas to graduate from Yale Law School and established one of the first racially-integrated law firms in the South. Rep. Joy Springer, a Democrat from Little Rock, works as an office manager and paralegal at the law firm that bears Walker’s name.

“I urge you to pass this bill, not only to add his name to the history books, but to recognize him for his great work in the area of civil rights, not only for people of color, but for all who are not able to speak up for themselves,” Springer said. “He was indeed a voice for the voiceless.”

Rep. Mark Lowery, a Republican from Maumelle, said he and Rep. Walker had some “classic battles on issues,” but he supports this legislation.

“The thing that I most remember about Rep. Allen’s bill from the last session when you came with this was Rep. Walker going to the well to speak against it, and I think that that speaks to a term that we didn’t hear but I think it is appropriate — his humility,” Lowery said.

Rep. Lowery has filed his own education bills that have caused some controversy this session. HB1218 seeks to prohibit courses that isolate students based on race, gender or political affiliation while HB1231 aims to prohibit the use of public school funds to teach the 1619 Project curriculum. Neither bill has been presented to the House Committee on Education nor are they currently listed on an upcoming agenda.

“There are certain things that we would be committing education malpractice if we did not do,” Lowery said. “Teaching about the 1957 Central High crisis would be one, letting students know about what happened at the Elaine riots, and I think omitting teaching about the contributions of John Walker would be educational malpractice, so I’m glad you brought this bill to us.” 

The bill has bipartisan support with both Democrats and Republicans listed as co-sponsors. Having made it out of committee, HB1029 now heads to the full House for a vote. 

Antoinette Grajeda
Antoinette Grajeda

Antoinette Grajeda is an Arkansas-based journalist. She has covered race, culture, politics, health, education and the arts for NPR affiliates as well as print and digital publications since 2007.