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History Minute: How the Booker brothers shaped Arkansas’s legal landscape

May 31, 2023 at 12:00 a.m.

By Dr. Ken Bridges

Many of the legal cases in the United States in the mid-twentieth century centered on titanic ideas of civil liberties and civil rights. These legal outcomes changed the United States forever.

In Arkansas, two African American brothers, Joseph Robert Booker and William A. Booker, both became lawyers and built a powerful law firm in Little Rock in a time when few African Americans could even practice law in the state. These two brothers would lead the charge in several prominent cases that had lasting effects on Arkansas.

Joseph Booker was born in Helena in 1893, with younger brother William A. Booker following in 1900. They had six other brothers and sisters. Their father was a respected minister, educator and civil rights activist in Phillips County. This passion for education and justice was instilled into the Booker children at a young age.

The elder brother attended Arkansas Baptist College in Little Rock before gaining a law degree from Northwestern University in Illinois. He began practicing law in Arkansas in 1919, with his younger brother following in his footsteps by 1925. the two brothers formed the influential firm of Booker and Booker in Little Rock.

In the early 1900s, minorities had few rights in the South. They could not vote, they could not attend the schools, hospitals, and parks they maintained with their tax dollars, and they were denied entry into restaurants and hotels. It was an intolerable situation for any American to bear, and the Bookers were determined for this to change.

In one of his earliest cases, in 1919, Joseph Booker took on the death sentences handed down to twelve African American defendants in a race war that erupted near Elaine in Phillips County. The twelve were convicted without any evidence, and Booker and a team of other lawyers eventually had the sentences overturned.

In 1942, the two brothers took on the Little Rock School District. At that time, black teachers were routinely paid less than white teachers. The courts struck down the policy as illegal and ordered that all teachers be paid the same regardless of race.

Four years later, they took on a new desegregation case. An African American student attempted to gain admission to the University of Arkansas Law School, which prohibited minorities from attending. In spite of their best arguments, however, the courts upheld the segregationist policy. But in 1948, facing increasing pressure and legal challenges, the University of Arkansas began admitting minorities to the law school.

The Bookers assisted other attorneys on numerous occasions in voting rights cases, desegregation cases, and other civil rights causes through the 1940s and 1950s. The two argued several cases before the state supreme court and even at the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1949, Joseph Booker was recognized for his efforts and elected president of the National Bar Association, an organization of black lawyers.

With one of their last cases together, the Bookers fought a 1959 law that required teachers to list all organizations to which they belonged, a law aimed at intimidating political participation by teachers.

Joseph Booker died in 1960, while William Booker died in 1966. While their influence is still felt in the state today in the liberties they won for so many, Little Rock went even further to honor these legal triumphs. In 1963, the school district named the new Booker Junior High School after Joseph Booker. In 1983, this school became the Booker Arts Magnet School, a school with a unique concentration on music, art and other forms of creativity for elementary school-aged children in the area.

Dr. Ken Bridges is a professor of history and geography at South Arkansas Community College in El Dorado and a resident historian for the South Arkansas Historical Preservation Society. Bridges can be reached by email at kbridges@ southark.edu.

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