The landscape of the modern civil rights era is replete with untold episodes of human tragedy. In civil-rights-era Mississippi, among the less known human tragedies is that of Clyde Kennard.
Born on 12 June 1927, one of five children of Will and Laura Kennard, Clyde Kennard grew up near Hattiesburg. At age eighteen he joined the US Army, serving from 1945 to 1952 and earning both a high school diploma and numerous awards, including the Korean Service Medal, the United Nations Service Medal, the Good Conduct Medal, and the Bronze Service Star. While in the military, Kennard began studying at Fayetteville Teachers College, near Fort Bragg, North Carolina, where he was stationed. Kennard transferred to the University of Chicago soon after leaving the military but returned to Forrest County after a couple of semesters to assist his mother with her chicken farm.
In 1955 Kennard telephoned Mississippi Southern College (MSC, now the University of Southern Mississippi), an all-white school in Hattiesburg, and requested a catalog. Several weeks later he called again, this time requesting an application for admission and indicating that he was African American. After failing to receive an application, Kennard visited the campus, where he met with MSC president W. D. McCain and college registrar M. W. Kenna, who told Kennard that he would have to satisfy all entrance requirements, including recommendation letters from five alumni from his county. McCain told the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission that Kennard’s grades were “above average” and that he had “met all of the requirements with the exception of furnishing the five recommendations from alumni in the county from which he was applying.” Officials refused to provide Kennard with the names of alumni from Forrest County, and he was denied admission.
In September 1958 Kennard resumed his efforts. The Sovereignty Commission worked to find “derogatory information” on him and enlisted conservative black leaders to “persuade him that it was in the best interest of all concerned that he withdraw and desist from filing an application for admission to Mississippi Southern College.” In early 1959, Gov. J. C. Coleman met with Kennard and told him that “it was not the appropriate time” for him to attend MSC. Kennard temporarily withdrew his application but decided to try again that fall.
On 15 September, Kennard attempted to register but was told that he would not be admitted because he had failed to supply a transcript from the University of Chicago, a point he disputed. As Kennard was leaving campus, local law enforcement officials stopped him and arrested him on charges of “driving at an excessive speed” and of illegal possession of “five pints of whiskey and other liquor under his front seat.” Justice Court judge T. C. Hobby found him guilty of both charges and imposed a six-hundred-dollar fine.
Kennard remained undeterred, but in September 1960 he was arrested and charged with possession of stolen chicken feed worth twenty-five dollars, a felony offense under Mississippi law. An all-white jury convicted Kennard, and circuit judge Stanton Hall sentenced Kennard to the maximum term allowed under law, seven years at Parchman Penitentiary.
Kennard endured brutal treatment and was forced to work six days a week in Parchman’s cotton fields. He began experiencing severe abdominal pains and suffered significant weight loss, and doctors at the University of Mississippi Hospital in Jackson found a large lesion on his colon. Nevertheless, Kennard was denied medical care and forced to continue working at Parchman, where other prisoners carried him between his cell and the fields. As information about Kennard’s condition became known in late 1962, civil rights leaders and Kennard’s mother launched a public campaign to persuade Gov. Ross Barnett to grant Kennard clemency, but Barnett resisted until February 1963. Kennard then traveled to Chicago for treatment, but his cancer had reached an advanced stage, and he died on 4 July 1963.
Despite attempts by John Howard Griffin, author of Black Like Me, and others to tell Kennard’s story, he remained largely forgotten, overshadowed by such events as James Meredith’s desegregation of the University of Mississippi in September 1962 and Medgar Evers’s murder less than a month before Kennard’s death. In 1991, however, the Jackson Clarion-Ledger published secret documents that showed that the Sovereignty Commission had framed Kennard. Over the next fifteen years, supporters waged a campaign to win him a posthumous pardon, and these efforts finally bore fruit on 12 May 2006, when circuit judge Robert Helfrich declared Kennard innocent of all charges.
The student services building at the University of Southern Mississippi is named in honor of Kennard and Walter Washington, the first African American to receive a doctorate from the institution. In addition, the school offers the Kennard Scholars Program, an honors program for “students committed to academic excellence, leadership development, and citizenship” that “gives particular attention to students from underrepresented and diverse communities.”
- Erle Johnston, Mississippi Defiant Years, 1953–1973: An Interpretive Documentary with Personal Experiences (1990)
- Timothy J. Minchin and John A. Salmond, Journal of Mississippi History 81 (Fall 2009)
- Mississippi History Now website, http://mshistorynow.mdah.state.ms.us
- David Sansing, Making Haste Slowly: The Troubled History of Higher Education in Mississippi (1990)
- Southern Miss Now website, news.usm.edu