An August Memory

James Robertson

Article by James Robertson Featured Author


Long hot summers in Mississippi are nothing new. Faulkner did his part with Light In August, though I did not read it until the ‘60s were long past. We knew of it, and we had read “Dry September,” not all voluntarily.

There was the Paul Newman/Joanne Woodward movie we all saw so many times, inspired by Faulkner’s work, and that of Tennessee Williams. Before that was Baby Doll, which my sister was not allowed to see.

Every (white) Southern boy fourteen years old knew what happened at two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863.

Then Came the ‘60s

There was a brooding omnipresence in the Summers of the ‘60s in the South.

The Freedom Riders had come to Jackson in the Summer of 1961, and then to Parchman. James Meredith entered Ole Miss the next year. And Medgar Evers was murdered on June 12, 1963. Each summer seemed hotter, and a bit longer.

No one had yet dreamt up the idea of starting school before mid-September.
Those of us who grew up in the South in mid-century have our special memories of those days. Of late, we have been forced to relive them, whether we wanted to or not. The Obama presidency has left us less of a choice than we might otherwise have had. Fortuity has played its part, as well.

The Force of Fortuity

This past Spring, through my work with the American Law Institute, I was drawn into a review of the sexual assault crimes chapter of the Model Penal Code. ALI is “restating” rape shield laws in a statutory form (though some like me are insisting that it be done through amendments to the rules of evidence).

Almost without realizing it, I found myself back half a century. Thinking of what might have happened.

The Summer of 1964 was most assuredly a hot one. Meanness and tragedy — and, yes, hope — were afoot, and not just in Neshoba County. I had just completed my second year in law school.

I was back in my home town of Greenville, to work with the firm then known as Keady, Campbell & DeLong, with the understanding that my primary assignment would be to help research and prepare a major price discrimination antitrust case for trial in U. S. District Court.

The second week I was on the job held quite a surprise, a typical small town Mississippi surprise in so many ways.

Not Exactly What a Summer Law Clerk Expects

A man named Dean Loyd held an Allied Van Lines franchise and operated several other businesses based in Greenville. Dean and my father were friends. His oldest son was the same age as my brother, and they were high school classmates and close friends. The Keady law firm did legal work for Dean’s assorted business interests.

Like many white families at the time, the Loyds had “help,” far beyond that described in Kathryn Stockett’s book. Dean had a “yard man” of many years standing, who was practically part of the Loyd family. I don’t recall his name, but I will never forget his son, Oliver Lee Williams, then just turned 18 years of age.

The weekend after my first week as a summer law clerk, Oliver Lee was arrested and charged with raping a young white girl. At the time, no one knew of such a case that had not resulted in a death sentence.

Justice was swift in those days. A number of black men had been executed in Mississippi for raping white women in the 1950s, one the night I graduated from high school in 1958. The most recent at the time had died in the gas chamber in May of 1962.

Dean Loyd called Billy Keady [later U. S. District Judge William C. Keady] with a simple plea. “You’ve got to help save Oliver Lee.” Keady hadn’t tried a criminal case in years. But, he was close friends with Howard Dyer, the leading criminal defense lawyer in the Delta in those days [and, as you might have guessed, the brother in law of Roy Campbell, another name partner in the firm].

Dyer agreed to defend Oliver Lee, on the condition that I become his loaned servant through the trial. [I had grown up with Dyer’s oldest son, who remains a friend.]

Oliver Lee Was No Tom Robinson

Understand that Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird colored my thinking in those days, along with the then recently released Gregory Peck movie. While I found Oliver Lee likeable, it quickly became apparent our client was not the noble innocent Tom Robinson. Our only defense was consent.

Lawyer Dyer worried how a young black man would be perceived by the all white male jury. Dean Loyd told Dyer he understood (via several layers of hearsay) the victim was quite promiscuous. So my first assignment as a summer law clerk was to find witnesses who could testify to that effect.

Yes, in the [white] melting pot typical of so many public schools in the South in those days, I had come to know plenty of rascals, boys who had grown up “on the other side of the tracks,” who were regular customers in the Youth Court [as I was], etc. I produced two witnesses, one of whom had had sexual relations with the victim, and the other who simply knew of her reputation for chastity vel non. But all were white.

Oliver Lee Williams stood trial for rape in the Washington County Courthouse in August of 1964. I feared the worst. Lawyer Dyer made good with the two witnesses I had found, and, yes, reduced the victim/prosecutrix to tears. His closing to the jury was every bit as good as Atticus Finch’s, and more effective. The jury was out forever, and finally hung up 7 to 5 for conviction.

No second trial ever took place. The district attorney had become convinced there was some truth in the consent defense. Oliver Lee remained in the county jail for another year or so, and was released. He headed to California as soon as he could get a bus ticket. I never heard from Oliver Lee again, but I’ve never forgotten him, nor the small, sordid role I played in saving his life in that hot Summer of 1964.

A Footnote and a Postcript

There is a footnote, again small town variety. One of the jurors, Sam Neyman, was the father of a boy (now deceased) I had gone to school with from the first grade on. The Neymans lived about four blocks from my home. Through my friend, I visited in the Neymans’ home after the trial. Mr. Neyman told me he had voted “guilty”, though he believed the prosecutrix probably was promiscuous as we had tried to portray her. “A prostitute has just as much right not to be raped as any other woman.”

Shortly after Billy Keady became U. S. District Judge Keady, Dean Loyd’s businesses went south. In time, Dean became a U. S. Deputy Marshall, and, in practical effect, Judge Keady’s driver and companion in swapping tall tales until the mid-1980s.

A Sobering Reflection

I have no doubt of the sound policy imperatives behind today’s rape shield laws. I am confident that ALI’s restating effort in the Model Penal Code revisions will reflect well the wisdom and sensitivities of our times.

But there is a thought I cannot escape. If in August of 1964, Mississippi had had a rape shield law like those of today, it is highly unlikely that Oliver Lee Williams would have lived to see his 20th birthday. That we no longer execute the perpetrators of non-fatal sexual assaults does not change the calculus that much, in the era of the Central Park Five, the case of Ronald Cotton and Jennifer Thompson,1 and many similar but less celebrated miscarriages of justice.

1. See Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and Ronald Cotton, Picking Cotton: Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption (2009).