I came to this conference to speak but came away inspired. Getting some coffee before the first talk on Friday, I bumped into William “Sonny” Walker. Walking into the conference room, he asked me if I already had a seat, and asked me to join him – sitting in the second row. I am often a back-row bandit, but how could I say no to this kind old gentleman?
Over the next 24 hours, bits and pieces of Sonny’s story emerged. He was the first African-American cabinet-level appointee in Arkansas. This conference was a conversation about philanthropy in honor of what would have been Winthrop Rockefeller’s 100th birthday, and it was Governor WR who appointed Sonny. It was just a small piece of WR’s support of civil rights – for women, children, and people of color. Sonny told me that when WR called to tell him about the position, he was not sure if he would accept. Would WR silence him? Would he become no more than a token? WR said no – he wanted Sonny to keep doing what he was doing, to make a difference for everyone. And so Sonny took the position and began to recruit African Americans to different positions. What I remember the most from this long list of people was that he recruited the first African American news anchors for at least three television channels. It was not only government office or business – it was the visible positions too, the positions that could change underlying thoughts and attitudes and beliefs.
At one point in the conference, Sonny stood up and shared some history with the audience, to remind us of the past. “All of you who like the Razorbacks, you remember that at one time there were no black men carrying the ball. WR helped to change that. Aren’t we thankful for the black men that carry ball for the Razorbacks today?! One of them was my son.” Later, he told me that Darius Walker, a hero when I was at Notre Dame, is his grandson.
Bragging is such an unbecoming behavior, but Sonny was just sharing history. He was telling me how Winthrop Rockefeller changed his life and that of so many others. Stories of civil rights never grow old to me. Instead I get teary-eyed and wish I could hear more. These are real people who made a difference and saw real changes. Somehow the word inspiring is lacking. Maybe I will just say that I thankful. Thankful because they did make a difference – that their battles are not ones that I have to fight, that there is a legacy in this nation of winning the civil rights battle. Thankful that I have people who inspire me.