William Harold Flowers was a civil rights titan, winning many landmark victories which include ending the practice of excluding African Americans from juries in Arkansas, desegregating the first southern university in the country (University of Arkansas School of Law at Fayetteville), and paving the way for school desegregation cases in Arkansas after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education.
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William Harold Flowers was born on October 16, 1911, in Stamps, Arkansas to Alonza Williams Flowers Jr., a businessman, and Beulah Lee Sampson, an activist, and schoolteacher. He was the eldest of their three sons.
In 1927 while on a trip to Little Rock with his father, 15-year-old Flowers witnessed the burning of lynching victim John Carter on a funeral pyre at the intersection of West Ninth Street and Broadway. That very day he decided that fighting for the civil rights of fellow African Americans would be his career path and life’s work. He later enrolled and graduated from Robert H. Terrell Law School in Washington D.C. On October 21, 1935, Flowers passed the Arkansas Bar examination. Though, he had sworn never to return to Little Rock after witnessing the lynching of John Carter there. His mother convinced him to return by telling him, “This is where you’re needed. This is where you can do the most good for your people.” Flowers set up his law practice in Pine Bluff in 1938 and immediately began taking on civil rights cases. During this time, he married Margaret J. O. Brown. The couple would go on to have nine children.
On March 10, 1940, Flowers created the Committee on Negro Organization (CNO) in Stamps to coordinate voter registration campaigns throughout Arkansas. His efforts resulted in the number of eligible black voters in Arkansas rising from a mere 1.5 percent to 17.3 percent by 1947. In 1945, when the NAACP set up an Arkansas state conference of branches, Flowers was appointed as the chief recruitment officer. In this position, he significantly expanded NAACP activities throughout Arkansas.
In 1947, Flowers won a landmark civil rights victory in the Wilkerson v. the State of Arkansas court case. Two African-American men, Albert Wilkerson and Willie Wilkerson were prosecuted after a deadly highway shooting incident with off-duty police officers resulted in the death of Deputy Bryant and C. W. Winston. While in court, Flowers and Zephaniah Alexander Looby, a civil rights leader and attorney from Tennessee, proved that the Jefferson County Jury Commission had excluded African Americans from jury service based on race. With this victory, the presiding judge, Judge Parham, dismissed the all-white petit jury panel and ordered the selection of a new petit jury panel. The jury eventually consisted of eleven white men and one black man at the end of the selection process. This case ended the exclusion of African Americans from Jefferson County juries and was the first instance that black jurors had served in the state since Reconstruction. Though both of his clients were convicted, this case marked the first time a black man convicted of the killing of a white man was not automatically sentenced to death in Arkansas.
In February 1948, Flowers helped to desegregate the University of Arkansas School of Law at Fayetteville by defending black applicant Silas H. Hunt. He negotiated Hunt’s admission making it the first state university among the former Confederate states to integrate voluntarily. Later that year, Flowers became president of the NAACP state conference of branches. In 1949, he sued for the provision of equivalent school facilities for black and white children in DeWitt. This helped pave the way for school desegregation cases in Arkansas after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas in 1954.
In the 1950s, Flowers proudly watched as his protégés and friends, Daisy Bates and Wiley A. Branton, helped to desegregate schools in Arkansas by providing support for the Little Rock Central High School Nine. In 1953, he became president of the African-American National Bar Association. In 1971, he became an ordained United Methodist minister. He served actively in the church until his death. In 1977, he became one of the first black special circuit judges in Jefferson County. He served in this position until 1980. In 1980, Governor Bill Clinton appointed him as an associate justice in the state court of appeals. In 1981, the Arkansas Black Lawyers’ Association was renamed the W. Harold Flowers Law Society in his honor.
Flowers died on April 7, 1990 in Pine Bluff and is buried in Forest Lawn Memorial Gardens in Pine Bluff.
Written by: Ninfa O. Barnard