William C. Keady

(1913–1989) United States District Judge

William C. Keady was a district judge of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi. On March 26, 1968, Pres. Lyndon B. Johnson nominated Keady to a new seat, and the appointment received Senate confirmation on April 3, 1968. Judge Keady served as chief judge of Mississippi’s Northern District from 1968 to 1982, and he assumed senior status on April 26, 1983.

William Colbert Keady was born on April 2, 1913, in Greenville, Mississippi, to Mary Augusta and Michael John Keady. His father owned a saloon, and Keady was the youngest of five children. “It must have been a great disappointment to my parents,” he later wrote, “that I came into the world with a major physical handicap, a deformed right arm with the complete absence of the right forearm and hand.” Nevertheless, as a boy, Keady collected stamps and regularly played tennis with William Alexander Percy at the Percy family mansion. At Greenville High School, he wrote for the school newspaper, won a state debate contest, and was the Delta singles champion and a state doubles champion in tennis, while working at several part-time jobs.

In 1931 Keady enrolled at Washington University in St. Louis on a scholarship. In 1935 he wed his high school sweetheart, Dorothy Thompson. The following year, Keady left St. Louis with a law degree and returned to Greenville, accepting the position of clerk in the firm of Percy and Farish. In 1937 the Keadys had a son, William Keady Jr., and in 1941 they had a daughter, Peggy Anne.

Keady entered politics but eventually focused on his legal career. In 1940, Washington County, Mississippi, voters elected him as state representative and in 1944 as state senator. Keady served as a delegate at the 1940, 1944, and 1960 Democratic National Conventions, but concluded that if he was “to attain excellence at the bar,” it would unwise to continue in the state legislature. He built a successful federal practice, and decided that becoming a United States judge was his ambition. Before ascending the federal bench, Keady was a member of the Greenville School Board, the Board of Directors of King’s Daughters and Sons Hospital, and the Greenville First Presbyterian Church.

As a federal judge, Keady had the difficult task of enforcing aggressive school desegregation plans favored by the Supreme Court and the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. In his memoir All Rise, he lamented the “white flight” from public schools and the rise of private academies resulting from desegregation, but concluded that “Jim Crow in education simply had to go.” Had he known that school desegregation was “just around the corner,” Keady wrote, his “eagerness for the federal bench would have been considerably diminished.”

Judge Keady won public acclaim for his leadership on prison reform in Mississippi. Citing rigid racial segregation, unsanitary conditions, a lack of due process for prisoners, inadequate medical facilities, inhumane disciplinary practices, and the abusive nature of the trusty system, Keady’s decision in Gates v. Collier (1972) ordered relief for Parchman inmates and required Mississippi prison officials to produce and implement a plan to accomplish specific reforms. “Throughout my handling of the penitentiary case,” he later wrote, “I endeavored to push but not exasperate the Mississippi Legislature which was the only source of funds with which to operate and improve the penitentiary.”

On June 16, 1989, Judge Keady died in a Jackson hospital at age seventy-six. Clarion-Ledger editors remembered him as a man of “vision and courage in the ranks of the federal judiciary” who “shaped a better Mississippi.”

Further Reading

  • William C. Keady, All Rise: Memoirs of a Federal Judge (1988)
  • David M. Hargrove, Mississippi’s Federal Courts: A History (2019)

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title William C. Keady
  • Coverage 1913–1989
  • Author
  • Website Name Mississippi Encyclopedia
  • URL
  • Access Date July 6, 2020
  • Publisher Center for Study of Southern Culture
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update May 21, 2019