Olly Neal Jr. headed up a community health clinic in Marianna (Lee County) in the 1970s, became the first black district prosecuting attorney in Arkansas, and served as a circuit court judge and on the Arkansas Court of Appeals. Historian Grif Stockley described him as a civil rights activist, political agitator, Arkansas Delta advocate, and a “black devil incarnate to many of Marianna’s whites.”
Olly Neal Jr. was born on July 13, 1941, on a farm eleven miles west of Marianna in the rural New Hope community to Ollie Neal and Willie Beatrice Jones Neal. Neal grew up poor in a home with no electricity. His parents impressed upon him and his twelve siblings the importance of education. Neal’s father had only a second-grade education but insisted that his children complete high school, while his mother obtained her college degree in 1959, a year after Neal graduated from high school. “She would drive to school at nights through the week whether it was in Pine Bluff, or Little Rock, or some extension course up at Forrest City,” Neal recalled.
Neal was drafted into the U.S. Army and served two years in Vietnam, 1964–1965, attaining the rank of specialist E-5. He earned a Bachelor of Science in chemistry from LeMoyne-Owen College in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1974 and a Juris Doctor from what is now the University of Arkansas at Little Rock William H. Bowen School of Law in 1979.
In 1970, Neal was asked to run the Lee County Cooperative Clinic (LCCC), a nonprofit, federally funded community health clinic based in Marianna. Neal served as its first chief executive officer from 1970 to 1978. In 1969, CBS 60 Minutes correspondent Daniel Schorr had broadcast a segment titled “Don’t Get Sick in America,” which featured Marianna and the lack of medical care for African Americans and poor whites. LCCC was established that same year by Jan Wrede and Corrine Cass, VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) health advocates placed in Marianna. They were joined by Dr. Dan Blumenthal, the first VISTA physician in the nation. According to author Marvin Schwartz, “Neal, more than any other figure, influenced the destiny of the clinic through his determination for its success, his articulation, and his steadfast refusal to be intimidated by any person or group that stood in his way.” LCCC remains Lee County’s sole healthcare facility in the twenty-first century.
During these years, Marianna and LCCC made national news. In 1971, Neal’s brother Prentiss, along with Rabon Cheeks, led a boycott against white merchants in the downtown business district. Violence broke out during the boycott, and the economic damage from the boycott was estimated to be in the millions. In 1972, renowned American folk singer and activist Joan Baez held a benefit concert in Memphis, Tennessee, to raise funds for the LCCC. That same year, 250 black students staged a sit-in at the local high school seeking the reinstatement of a fired black teacher and a Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day school observance.
Neal transitioned from community organizer and LCCC administrator into politics, making three unsuccessful bids for public office. In 1973, Neal ran for state senator against Paul Benham of Marianna. In 1982, he ran against incumbent Robert Donovan for city attorney, and in 1984 he ran for municipal judge against incumbent Dan Felton III. Undaunted by his losses, in 1990 Neal paid part of the filing fee for a white attorney, Dan Dane, to run for prosecuting attorney for the first judicial district. Dane won and selected Neal as deputy prosecuting attorney. The next year, Dane resigned. In a news release, Dane stated that it was time for him to move on to other career opportunities. Governor Jim Guy Tucker appointed Neal to complete Dane’s term, calling the appointment “historic.”
In 1991, Neal became the first black district prosecuting attorney in Arkansas. He was elected circuit court judge for the First Judicial District in 1993, and Governor Tucker appointed Neal to the Arkansas Court of Appeals in 1996, where he served for eleven years before retiring in 2007. This was the first time three African-American judges (Neal, Wendell Griffen, and Andree Layton Roaf) served concurrently in the Arkansas Court of Appeals.
Neal became part of a national discussion about education when National Public Radio (NPR) aired a Story Corps interview with Neal and his daughter Karama in 2009. The segment included a recollection of Neal’s former English teacher and school librarian, Mildred Grady, who had confided to Neal at a high school reunion in 1972 that she had seen him steal a Frank Yerby book from the school library. Grady told Neal that she realized he stole rather than borrowed the book in order to preserve his reputation as a tough guy. After reading the book, Neal secretly returned it but was astonished to find another Yerby book in exactly the same place. Neal stole the new book. Three times that semester, Grady placed a new book there (having driven to Memphis and purchased it for him), and Neal credits Grady with fostering in him a love of reading. In 2012, New York Times columnist and Pulitzer Prize winner Nicholas Kristof used their story to demonstrate the importance of good teachers and the potential they can make with “troubled, surly kids in a high-poverty environment.”
Neal has two children: Karama and Nakia. In 1992, he married Karen Buchanan, his fourth wife. In 2014, he was inducted into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame.
For additional information:
“Boy Lifts Book; Librarian Changes Boy’s Life.” StoryCorps. National Public Radio. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=113357239 (accessed August 20, 2014).
Kristof, Nicholas D. “How Mrs. Grady Transformed Olly Neal.” New York Times, January 12, 2012. Online at http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/22/opinion/sunday/kristof-how-mrs-grady-transformed-olly-neal.html?_r=0 (accessed August 20, 2014).
Schwartz, Marvin. In Service to America: A History of VISTA in Arkansas, 1965–1985. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1988.
Stockley, Grif. Ruled by Race: Black/White Relations in Arkansas from Slavery to the Present. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2008.
Little Rock, Arkansas