Clyde Kennard (June 12, 1927–July 4, 1963) was a Civil Rights pioneer and martyr, born in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.In the 1950s, he attempted several times to enroll at Mississippi Southern College (now known as University of Southern Mississippi) to complete his undergraduate degree started at University of Chicago. USM was still segregated and reserved for European Americans.
After he published a letter about integrated education, the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission conspired to have him arrested on false charges. He was convicted and sentenced to seven years at Parchman Penitentiary, a high-security prison. Although he was terminally ill with cancer, the governor refused to pardon him, but released him in January 1963. After 2005 and publication of evidence that Kennard had been framed, supporters tried to secure a posthumous pardon for him, but Governor Haley Barbour refused.
Kennard was born in Mississippi in 1927; he moved to Chicago at the age of 12 to aid his injured sister, Sarah. He stayed and graduated from Wendell Phillips High School, then entered the U.S. Army.
After serving as a paratrooper during the Korean War, as a veteran he returned to Chicago and started college at the University of Chicago. In 1955, after completing his junior year, Kennard returned to Hattiesburg, Mississippi to care for his stepfather, who had become disabled and needed help. Kennard purchased land in Eatonville to start a chicken farm.He taught Sunday school at the Mary Magdalene Baptist Church.
On three separate occasions (1956, 1957 and 1959), Kennard sought to enroll at Mississippi Southern College, one of Mississippi’s premier institutions, which was still segregated and had an exclusively white student body. Mississippi governor James P. Coleman offered to have the state pay his tuition elsewhere in the state, but Kennard declined. He preferred that college as it was the closest to his home, a major factor given his family situation. In Brown v. Board of Education (1955), the US Supreme Court had ruled that segregation in public educational facilities was unconstitutional.
On December 6, 1958, Kennard published a letter in the Hattiesburg American newspaper. He wrote that he was a “segregationist by nature” but “integrationist by choice,” and gave a reasoned explanation as to why segregation in education was impractical and bound to be replaced by one integrated system.
Zack Van Landingham of the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission urged J. H. White, the African-American president of Mississippi Vocational College, to persuade Kennard to end his quest at Mississippi Southern College. When Kennard could not be dissuaded, Van Landingham and Dudley Connor, a Hattiesburg, Mississippi lawyer, worked together to suppress his activism. Files from the Sovereignty Commission, which were opened in 1998, showed that its officials considered forcing Kennard into an accident or bombing his car.
The Sovereignty Commission conspired to have Kennard framed for a crime. On September 15, 1959, he was arrested under false pretenses by constables Charlie Ward and Lee Danniel for reckless driving. After he was jailed, Lee and Daniels perjured themselves before Justice of the Peace T. C. Hobby, claiming to have found five half pints of whiskey, along with other liquor, under the seat of his car. Mississippi was a “dry” state, and possession of liquor was illegal until 1966. Kennard was subsequently cited for illegal liquor possession.
He was convicted and fined $600 for the latter offense. He soon became the victim of an unofficial local economic boycott (also a tactic of the Sovereignty Commission), which cut off his credit. He was arrested again on September 25, 1960 with an alleged accomplice for the theft of $25 worth of chicken feed from the Forrest County Cooperative warehouse. Kennard went to trial, with the accomplice, Johnny Lee Roberts, testifying that Kennard paid him to steal the feed.
On November 21, 1960, an all-white jury deliberated 10 minutes and found Kennard guilty. (At the time, because of having been essentially disfranchised and unable to vote in Mississippi since 1890, blacks could not serve on juries.)
Kennard was sentenced to seven years in prison, to be served in Parchman Penitentiary, a high-security facility. Despite his alleged role in the crime, Roberts was given five years’ probation and freed. Years later, Roberts testified under oath that Kennard was innocent: “Kennard did not ask me to steal, Kennard did not ask me to break into the co-op, Kennard did not ask me to do anything illegal.”
Just after the conclusion of the trial, Mississippi NAACP official Medgar Evers was cited for contempt after issuing a statement that the conviction was “a mockery of judicial justice.” Evers was fined $100 and sentenced to 30 days in jail, but on June 12, 1961, the Mississippi Supreme Court overturned the conviction.
While imprisoned in 1961, Kennard was diagnosed with colon cancer and taken to the University of Mississippi hospital for surgery. The medical staff recommended that Kennard be put in their custody or that they be allowed to make regular visits to check on his condition. Authorities sent him back to Parchman Prison, where he worked as a laborer.
Civil rights leaders in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, embarked on a campaign to secure Kennard’s release. After the story gained national attention in 1963, Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett gave Kennard an “indefinite suspended sentence.”
Kennard was released on January 30. The comedian Dick Gregory paid for his flight to Chicago, where he went for medical treatment. He twice underwent surgery at Billings Hospital on the University of Chicago campus over the next five months, but died of cancer 10 days after the latter procedure.
On July 7, a funeral service for Kennard was held at Metropolitan Funeral Parlor in Chicago. A poem he wrote on April 16, 1962 was read to the congregation. Sensing his limited lifespan, he titled the poem, “Ode to the Death Angel:”
- Oh here you come again
- Old chilly death of Ol’
- To plot out life
- And test immortal soul
- I saw you fall against the raging sea
- I cheated you then and now you’ll not catch me
- I know your face
- It’s known in every race
- Your speed is fast
- And along the way
- Your shadow you cast
- High in the sky
- You thought you had me then
- I landed safely
- But here you are again
- I see you paused upon that forward pew
- When you think I’m asleep
- I’m watching you
- Why must you hound me so everywhere I go?
- It’s true my eyes are dim
- My hands are growing cold
- Well take me on then, that
- I might at last become my soul
Three days later, he was buried in his family’s plot at Mary Magdelene Cemetery in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.