Looking around the law offices of James K. Dukes on Pine Street shows the full and blessed life that the 82-year-old attorney has enjoyed in the Hub City. The first thing to stand out while waiting to see Dukes is the print of the famous 18th hole at the Pebble Beach Golf Course.
“Yes, I’ve played it,” he said later after he settled into his office chair. It’s Friday and Dukes isn’t expected in court, so he’s wearing a fishing shirt. “I have worn a tie for so long, I hate the things.”
A bag full of golf clubs sits off to the front of his desk, showing signs of wear from both the playing days and the lack of recent activity. “I was an avid golfer; I wasn’t a good golfer, but I loved it and I still do. I can’t play anymore because of my legs; I’m afraid I’ll fall because I broke both legs and have plates and screws in them.”
When he played golf, Dukes was particularly partial to playing in four-ball tournaments.
“I tell people that it ain’t how you play,” he said. “It’s how you pick your partners.”
Standing against the wall on the opposite side of the room are a handful of firearms, split between long rifles and shotguns. Dukes said he’s not looking for trouble.
“I try to explain to people that I’m not afraid I’m going to get attacked,” he said. “I was a victim of the tornado (on Jan. 21). They had to do a lot of work at my house. While they were working there, I decided I’d better move a few weapons down here.”
Dukes and his father, who was a police officer at Camp Shelby, would hunt quail together in the Pine Belt.
“Of course, there’s not any native quail anymore to speak of,” he said. “I did my share of deer hunting and went to Colorado to shoot elk and all that kind of business.”
Times were different, however, when Dukes was prosecuting attorney in Hattiesburg during the Civil Rights era in the mid-1960s. While he didn’t have any immediate use for firearms during those troubled times, some of his friends did.
One friend was Vernon Dahmer, who served two terms as president of the Forrest County chapter of the NAACP. Dahmer was killed on Jan. 10, 1966, when Ku Klux Klan members firebombed his house.
Dukes claims Hattiesburg and the surrounding area as his home, although “all of my people come from Smith County around Raleigh.”
Dukes said he never participated in the National Tobacco Spitting Contest, which is held annually in Raleigh. “But I still suffer from it,” he said as he pulled a pouch from his pants pocket. The tobacco is the remnant from years of smoking cigars.
He grew up “as a baby” at Mississippi Women’s College, now William Carey University.
“My father was their outside go-to person,” Dukes said. “They had their own dairy, farm and everything; he did all that. My mother tended school there and then in World War II, they shut it down and converted the dormitories to small accommodations about the size of this office for field-grade officers at Camp Shelby. My father was captain of the police force at that time. They had 120,000 troops at Camp Shelby and they had 27 police officers. It was awful.”
Dukes said he grew up in a time when blacks were some of his closest friends.
“I worked my way through college driving a truck for North American Van Lines, a moving tractor-trailer,” he said. “The guy that was with me was a great big black guy whose nickname was ‘Footsie’ because he had a foot about this long (he stretched his hands apart). He had biceps about that big. I thought if he could lift something, I could. That’s why my back is bothering now, I think. I grew up with these people and loved them. Everybody had their own social thoughts and so on, but this community unlike Jones County and others, didn’t have any kind of hellraising and cross burnings and all that. We just wouldn’t allow it.”
Dukes had an older brother, Bill, who served in the Navy during World War II, and a sister named Betty. James was the baby of the family.
“Bill had a very profound influence on me,” Dukes said. “He went into law school and did really well with the sole purpose of going into the FBI, which he did. He retired after 27 years and went into the law practice.”
However, tragedy played a role in Dukes’ life when he was just 17 years old.
“At my brother’s first FBI assignment, which was Milwaukee (Wisc.), they had their second child,” he said. “I had ridden up there (to Milwaukee) with my sister and her husband; they had just finished school at The University of Southern Mississippi and were going to take a little vacation. They were bringing my mother back.
“My brother-in-law, my sister and my mother were killed tragically in a car wreck in Terra Haute, Ind. A truck pulled out in front of them. So that left me, my dad – who was disabled – and my brother, who ultimately got assigned back down this way to help with my dad.”
Dukes said the sudden loss of his mother and sister made his love for his brother and father stronger.
“I had wonderful parents, like most folks back then,” he said. “They were not affluent at all, but we ate well and they were loving. My dad was a police officer and he was a big man, a disciplinarian. We were very close after my mother was killed. My dad, my brother and I were more like three friends than a father and two sons.”
Dukes continued his education, graduated from the Ole Miss Law School, went into the Army, came back and has been practicing law ever since.
Dukes met his wife, the former Janeil Stewart, while she was attending Women’s College and he lived on Tuscan Avenue.
“There was a little church down the street that I went all my life, Immanuel Baptist Church,” he said. “She was a music person and was singing in the choir of the church and that’s how we met. I lived across the street from the campus, we met and it worked out pretty well. She’s a wonderful person and whatever I’ve accomplished, I wouldn’t have done it without her and the support of my three wonderful children.”
James and Janeil Dukes celebrated their 62nd wedding anniversary on June 5.
Dukes said he has the same family that his father had – an older son, a daughter and a son.
“My oldest son, Jim, practices law with me,” he said. “My daughter, Jan, lives in Nashville, and my youngest son, Bill, lives here and operates Sunrise Trading Post. That’s my grandson, my only grandson (as he pointed to the man pictured in Marine Corps dress uniform). He’s out of the Marine Corps; they just gave us two years ago our great grandchild. I am blessed, very much so.”
Dukes said he depended a lot on his brother after his mother and sister were killed.
“My father was somewhat disabled after having a heart attack, so I had to lean on my brother,” he said. “He was my mentor. He was loving and understanding and he was a pretty good role model. He was about nine years older than me and we were extremely close. He was in the FBI and back down here when all of the Klan activity started.”
The Dahmer killing put Hattiesburg into the national news and Dukes, as prosecuting attorney for Forrest County, was at the forefront.
“We had the Dahmer tragedy and it just came at a time when I was prosecuting attorney,” he said. “Bud Gray was the sheriff; he was a good, solid man. My brother was the case agent. They opened up the field office in Jackson prior to that; they had worked out of New Orleans. Mr. (FBI Director J. Edgar) Hoover came down and I got to meet and know him. We got involved in that investigation.”
The law enforcement officers who worked on the investigation were famous.
“Roy Moore was assigned as the Special Agent in Charge for the FBI; he was nationally known,” Duke said. “J.L. Martin was an agent who was like another brother to me and he is the father of Terry Martin, who since worked for me for 20-something years. We had a close-knit group with absolute trust that didn’t have any leaks on anything. That’s what allowed the successful prosecution of those that we did in the Dahmer case, which was pretty tough back then to get the conviction of that many people with the Klan activities.”
The cases involved the first time a white man was convicted of killing a black man in Mississippi. Fourteen men were tried for the attack. Eight men faced charges of arson and murder and four were convicted. Billy Roy Pitts, the bodyguard of former Ku Klux Klan Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers, pleaded guilty after his gun was recovered at Dahmer’s house.
Bowers was tried four times for Dahmer’s slaying, had four mistrials and was convicted 25 years later after a fifth trial. He died in prison in 2006.
When Dukes remembers the eventual convictions, he doesn’t consider himself or the other officers of the court to be heroes.
“That doesn’t go to anybody like myself or anybody else,” he said. “It goes to the makeup of the jury. Forrest County has always been a good, clean-cut place to live. We’ve had our problems, but nothing major. We’ve never had any volatile racial problems. The university contributes to that some and William Carey and others. Dr. C.E. Smith, a black who was head of the NAACP, for a long time I had represented him and we had trust. That contributed to the lack of problems.”
Dukes said certainly he experienced hard feelings from some people because of his involvement in the Dahmer case.
“I was at home one day for lunch during that time (of the Dahmer trial) and got a call,” he said. “Janeil answered the call and it was an anonymous voice. It said, ‘Look, you need to move your daughter from the front bedroom’ – They knew everything about my house – ‘because we don’t want to hurt a child. We’re going to kill your husband. Of course, he’s out in a motel with this man’s wife.’ Well, I’m standing right there by her. We’ve laughed about it since then. I told her, ‘Now see, you hear all of these wild tales about me doing something; people lie about
that. You know that’s right.’”
Other tales during that time were more direct.
“In Jones County, they put a rattlesnake in one of the FBI agent’s car,” he said. “It got pretty ugly, but the jury is who gets the credit. The citizenry of this county did their job and that’s the most important thing overall. I had known Vernon Dahmer, knew his family and still know them. They are fine, hard-working, good, honest people.
“It was unlike what happened in Neshoba County when they had all that, where law enforcement was in the Klan,” he said, referring to the three civil rights workers whose bodies were discovered under an earthen dam. “We had a very close-knit group here that had mutual trust.”
Still ‘practicing’ law
Even in his 82nd year, Dukes continues to represent clients from his law firm.
“I’ve been practicing law since 1959; I’m still practicing law,” he said, when asked whether he thinks he’ll ever get it right. “You just hit the nail on the head. That’s why they call it the ‘practice’ of law and the ‘practice’ of medicine; they have not perfected it yet.”
So Dukes continues to see clients in his Pine Street office.
“I’m here every day and I still try lawsuits,” he said. “I don’t try quite as many as I have in the past. I represented Forrest General Hospital for 25 years. I have people ask me occasionally, ‘Well, what kind of lawyer are you?’ I say I can’t answer that; I tell people I am a trial lawyer.”
After opening the law offices, he was elected county attorney, serving for 10 years.
“A prosecuting attorney then did not have to be full-time, so I still had my law practice,” he said. “I had a practice for several years before I became prosecuting attorney. I had a partner named Paul “Bud” Holmes and we practiced under the name of Holmes and Dukes. Then he went off and was elected district attorney around 1980 and that’s when we separated from the practice. My son, Jim, has been with me about 30 years.
“I never had a desire to work or practice in some of these ‘law factories,’ as I call them,” he said. “You know, they’ve got 100 lawyers; you totally lose your identity and everything. I’ve enjoyed it and been before a lot of fine judges, both state and federal. In fact, I was in court yesterday in Greene County in Leakesville and was telling some stories about things had happened in the past with various judges.”
Outside of Dukes’ office is a hallway of framed photos showing golfers from past Magnolia Classic tournaments.
“Hattiesburg at one time had the only PGA-recognized golf tournament in the state, the Magnolia Classic at the (Hattiesburg) Country Club,” he said. “Out where we lived, we have a place on the lake that would sleep about five or six. These young professional golfers would come and stay on the lake. I have never seen a professional golfer that didn’t like to fish, I really haven’t.”
Dukes said he tried to make the golfers comfortable during the tournament, allowing them to go out on their own.
“One of them asked me one day, ‘Do you know a place where we can go fishing?’” he said, acting surprised. “I said, ‘You’re not trying to con me are you?’ ‘Oh, no.’ Anyhow, I started the deal where they would go out there and stay at my place. I told them, ‘You can sleep here. You can eat here. You can play poker here and you can fish here. But I ain’t going to clean up after you. I have a lady who will clean up and make up your beds if y’all want to pay her a little something.’
“Most of these were young men who said that people didn’t know what it was like going from tournament to tournament, staying in a hotel room. All you can do is stay in a hotel room and read a book or go to a movie. Out here, each one of them would have a night where they would be the cook.”
The fishing tournament became a part of the golf tournament.
“We organized the fishing tournament out at Big Bay when it first came on board,” Dukes said. “We got local fishermen to provide the boat and tackle. They drew lots to see what golfer would go with whom.”
Past the hallway and down a couple of steps is where Dukes said he conducts most of his business.
“Down in what we call ‘The Kitchen’ is where I do most of my law practice,” he said. “That’s where people come when I say we are going to meet in ‘The Kitchen; ‘it has an identity all of its own.”
In addition to the Golden Eagles memorabilia, clippings and schedules hanging on the walls, a signed Brett Favre jersey as a Green Bay Packer dominates one side of the room.
“I’ve also got one from Ray Guy,” Dukes said, referring to the former USM punter who is an NFL Hall of Famer with the Oakland Raiders.
In the Kitchen, Dukes talked about how he continues to grow cotton and peanuts on land he owns east of Hattiesburg. Although he raised cattle at one time, the regulations involved in the business became restrictive and he decided against it.
“It allowed me opportunity to have horses because all three of my children loved them,” he said, adding that his children would compete in horse shows. “We’d go every year to the Dixie National.”
Dukes said he believes he’s lived a full and rich life.
“I’ve had some wonderful experiences. I don’t have any regrets at all. I was really blessed,” he said, adding, “I could probably tell stories all day long.”