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The story of Clyde Kennard


is the story of a dream
cruelly denied.

What was the dream of this young black man


living in Mississippi? He wanted to attend his
local college and finish his degree. It sounds
simple enough, but it meant integrating a
whites-only university in the Jim Crow South.

3 In 1955, Kennard was in his third year of studies 4 But one day he got a call
in political science at the University of Chicago. from home.
He had moved there from Hattiesburg at
age 12.
Son, your stepdad -
hes passed away.
I just dont know
how Im Im
going to - coming
home,
Mama.

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But Kennard wanted to get his degree. The closest
Mississippi in the 1950s was a school was Mississippi Southern College, now known
as the University of Southern Mississippi.
brutal place for young black
It was only 15 minutes
men. Kennard returned home away by car.
to help on his mothers farm
the same year that 14-year
old Emmett Till, a young boy
from Chicago, was murdered
in Mississippi for allegedly
making a pass at a
white woman.

But Mississippi Southern had never accepted


any black students. In fact, all of Mississippis
schools, from kindergarten to graduate school,
were segregated.

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In 1954, the Supreme Court had ruled in the The state responded to Brown v. Board by
landmark Brown v. Board of Education case creating an agency called the Mississippi State
that having separate schools for black and Sovereignty Commission to fight desegregation
white students was unconstitutional. and track any threats to the states segregated
way of life. They hired and paid
But for Missisissippis leaders, a segregated informants and infiltrators to spy
educational system was a pillar of a Jim Crow on the civil rights movement.
society.

Kennard wasnt deterred. He applied again six


In 1955, the first time Kennard applied to months later, and met directly with the
Mississippi Southern, he was denied admission university president, William McCain.
because he had not supplied references from 5
alumni in his county. Because black applicants There is no
had a very low chance of receiving a reference May I have a list such list.
from the schools white alumni, this rule of all the alumni
helped to keep the school segregated. from my county?

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Privately, McCain was talking to the Kennard took his fight public. He wrote a
Mississippi Sovereignty Commissions letter to the local newspaper, the
investigative team, led by a former Hattiesburg American.
FBI agent, Zack VanLandingham.

To be honest, Kennards ials


e, the offic
grades are above average. In our stat ti me and
en d mu ch of their
Hes met every single sp money
ch of our
requirement except for the perhaps mu ce th e
convin
alumni references. Its a trying to s an d re assure
nist
integratio th at the
real problem. rationists
the segreg
perpetual
policy of sest
n is the wi
segregatio pu rs ue.
us to
course for

In the letter, he presented his creed-


that all people should be judged by their Kennards public fight angered
ability rather than their skin color. state officials. VanLandingham
scoured through every aspect
of Kennards life, from his
personal habits to his
financial records, to find
something that would
We believe when merit replaces take Kennard down.
race as a factor in character
evaluation then the most heckling
social problem of modern times
will have been solved.

He even paid
agents in Illinois
to dig up his files
there.

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A local attorney named Dudley Conner who
But there was a problem. served on the sovereignty commission offered to
They couldnt come up anything. take care of Kennard by other means.
Clyde Kennard had committed no crimes.
He paid his bills on time. He had no Kennards car could be hit by a train
hidden vices. He sang for his church choir, or he could have some accident on
and mentored young people. the highway and nobody
would ever know the
difference.

But they feared the bad publicity from such Mississippi governor J.P. Coleman even met
tactics. So VanLandingham recruited directly with Kennard to convince him not to
conservative black educators to persuade apply. Kennard agreed to withdraw his
Kennard to not apply to the school. application.

There will never


Now is not the be a time
time, son ... unless I try... Change takes
time, Kennard.
Maybe in a few
Wait- years...

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In 1959, after the election of a new governor, Other tactics were used on Kennard.
Kennard notified McCain that he would apply The insurance company canceled the
for the fall semester. McCain tried again to insurance on his car, citing fears of foul
persuade him not to apply. play. The local cooperative foreclosed on
his poultry farm and took all his poultry.

Kennard, you know the governor would


rather close Mississippi Southern and all
the Negro schools rather
than integrate them.
This will rest on you.

But Kennard persisted. He went to meet McCain McCain told Kennard he was denied
again. It was his third attempt to enroll. At the admission again. This time, he had
restaurant he dropped by before the meeting, another excuse.
everyone was worried.

You should at least take You never submitted


someone with you, to a transcript from
be safe. college.

But I did!

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After the meeting, Kennard left out of a side Kennards friends suspected that he had been
door since McCain wanted to avoid having him set up since the devout Kennard never drank.
speak to the press. But when he got to his VanLandingham reported as much to the
car,two policemen waiting for him. governor.
And illegal
possession of
Whats the rush, boy? whiskey-
Youre under arrest
for excessive
speeding.

It appears to be a
frame-up, with the
evidence planted by
the county constables.
This appears to be
their idea.

Kennard wrote another letter to the In September 1960, the last attempt
Hattiesburg American. This time, he appealed to to stop Kennard was carried out.
the ideals of the American political tradition. At the local cooperative
that had foreclosed on
Kennards farm, a young
If there is one quality of Americans which employee named Johnny
would set them apart from almost any Lee Roberts was caught
other peoples, it is the history of stealing five bags
their struggle for liberty and justice of chicken feed
under the law. Truly the history of worth $25. He
America is inseparable from the
claimed that
ideals of John Locke, John Stuart
Mill and Jean Rousseau.
Kennard had
planned it all.

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We find Kennard was sentenced to seven years in state
him guilty, prison, the maximum term. As a felon,
your Kennard was now no longer eligible to apply to
Honor. any of Mississippis colleges. Roberts was
returned to his job.

Kennard was arrested and charged with


accessory to burglary, a felony under Mississippi
law. Based on Roberts testimony, most of which
was garbled and contradictory, an all-white jury
took ten minutes to determine their verdict.

The local NAACP launched a campaign to free


Kennard. State field secretary Medgar Evers To be free you
took a special interest in his case. Evers had and I must give.
also tried to integrate and attend the
University of Mississippi law school in 1953.

Evers remarks earned him a citation for


contempt of court and a fine. The NAACP
campaigned for both Evers and Kennard. But
Clyde Kennards only Evers citation was overturned.
Evers promised Kennards mother:
conviction is a
We will not stop.
mockery of judicial
justice.

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Thurgood Marshall appealed on behalf of
Kennard at the U.S. Supreme Court. But the Meanwhile, Kennard
Justices would not hear his case.
was toiling in the cotton
Your honors, Kennard was fields at Parchman
tried in a jurisdiction where
juries are prejudiced against
Penitentiary. The state
African Americans! He prison was notorious, a
deserves a fair trial.
violent place where state
officials sent civil rights
activists to break their
spirit.

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But even in prison, Kennard was
committed to education. Every Sunday,
the only day of rest, he taught illiterate
inmates how to read and write.

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In 1962, a medical record librarian noted
After a year of hard labor, Kennard complained that doctors gave Kennard less than a 20
of severe stomach pain. Doctors found a large percent chance of living five years.
lesion in his colon. But he was sent back to
Parchman without any treatment. I recommend Kennard
be given parole,
on humanitarian
grounds.

But the new governor, Ross


Barnett, was a staunch
segregationist. He refused.

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A reporter posing as a visitor visited Parchman
Kennard lost forty pounds. and smuggled out pictures of Kennard looking
skeletal. It showed that officials who insisted
He grew too weak to pull that Kennard was treated well were lying. The
campaign to release him continued in earnest.
his shoes out of the mud or
stand without falling down.

Still, prison officials ordered


other inmates to carry him
into the fields every day.
They stood him on his feet
to force him to continue
picking cotton.

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mostly to avoid the outcry that would surely
come if Kennard died at Parchman. Those who
visited him found he was less than 100 pounds
and very ill.

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Kennards story was soon overshadowed by oth-
er school integration fights, the Birmingham
church bombings, and high-profile killings.
Medgar Evers was murdered just one month
before Kennards death, and John F. Kennedy
was assassinated in November of that year.

Kennard went to Chicago for


treatment, but he died less
than six months after his
release from prison. He was
only 36. A poem he composed
before his death showed that
he knew his time was
coming. It wasnt until 1991, when the Clarion-Ledger
published Sovereignty Commission documents
that showed Kennard had been framed, that
public interest once again surged in his case.
Its true my eyes are dim In 2005, Johnny Lee Roberts, the man whose
testimony had sent Kennard to prison, finally
My hands are growing cold admitted to a reporter that Kennard was
innocent. Roberts was 65 years old.
Well take me on then,
that I might at least
become my soul.

Clyde Kennard wasnt arrested for stealing.


He was arrested because he was trying to
go to Southern.

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Civil rights groups, University of Southern Finally, in 2006, the judge of the court
Mississippi students, and an Illinois high school where Kennard had been convicted
teacher named Barry Bradford, along with his declared him innocent, more than
students, demanded Kennards name to be four decades after he had died.
cleared. But the governor declined.

I declare Clyde Kennard


innocent.

I havent pardoned anyone since Ive


been governor, and I dont have any
intention of pardoning anybody.

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Why did Kennard fight so
hard, against such formi-
dable obstacles, to integrate
Mississippi Southern?

Was it because he
had lived in Or was it because the state had closed the
Chicago, where local black school in his hometown in 1958,
forcing black children to travel 11 miles
blacks were more away to the nearest black school while
free to vote and passing a white school in the town?

attend university? We may never know his motivations.

What is clear that he wanted to forge a path


for others. For Raylawni Branch, Kennard had
certainly changed her life.
She was the 17-year old
waitress who had served
him coffee before his
final attempt to matriculate.

Was it his seven years of


military service, including
during the Korean War,
which galvanized many black
veterans like him to fight for
their rights at home?

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In 1965, she became one of the first two
black students to attend the college Kennard
fought so hard to integrate.

Because of Kennard,
we werent jailed. We
didnt suffer.

It is not too late to remember Clyde Kennard,


a man who gave up his life fighting against
segregation in higher education. His story is
a sober reminder of how much work there is
still left to do to combat school segregation in
America.

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