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Vindicated but still victimized by racism

Published May 14, 2006 7:31 AM

Clyde Kennard has been vindicated and a day named in his honor in Mississippi. Yet Gov. Haley Barbour still refuses him a posthumous pardon.

Clyde Kennard

Kennard died in Chicago on July 4, 1963. The 36-year-old African American never saw much of the “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” promised in the Declara tion of Independence.

He had been dying of cancer when, five months earlier, he was released from Mississippi’s Parchman Prison, where he was serving a seven-year term after being framed for stealing $25 worth of chicken feed. Activist entertainer Dick Gregory accompanied Kennard and his sister, Sara Tarpley, on the flight to Chicago.

Kennard’s real crime was to repeatedly apply for admission to then all-white Mississippi Southern College in Hattiesburg, since renamed the University of Southern Mississippi. Officials of the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission—a terrorist agency that worked hand-in-hand with the Ku Klux Klan—plotted to kill or frame him. They did both.

Kennard was born in Hattiesburg in 1927 and moved to Chicago when he was 12 years old. He spent seven years in the U.S. Army, was sent to Korea and was awarded the Bronze Star. With his savings, he bought his mom a small farm.

The veteran enrolled in the University of Chicago in 1952 and majored in political science. But after three years of study he had to come home to help his mother.

Kennard became president of Hattiesburg’s NAACP youth chapter. He also wanted to finish his schooling by transferring to Mississippi Southern, which was just a 15-minute drive from his family’s farm.

Democratic Gov. J.P. Coleman offered to pay Kennard to go to any other college in the United States rather than let him break the color line.

The college’s president, W.D. McCain, was in contact with the White Citizens Council. Its local leader said he would “take care” of the “troublemaker.” Zack J. Van Landingham—the Sovereignty Commission’s chief bloodhound—was present in a Sept. 15, 1959, interview between McCain and Kennard.

Immediately afterwards cops charged Kennard with reckless driving. They also claimed to have found five liquor bottles in his station wagon. A justice of the peace fined Kennard $600 and court costs.

When this didn’t stop the civil rights activist, authorities coerced a young Black man—Johnny Lee Roberts, 19—into lying. Roberts claimed Kennard paid him $10 to steal five bags of chicken feed from the Forrest County Cooperative warehouse on Sept. 25, 1960.

Jess Brown, one of only four Black attorneys in Mississippi at the time, courageously defended Kennard. It took only 10 minutes for the all-white jury to convict him.

The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal.

Mississippi NAACP leader Medgar Evers was sentenced to 30 days in jail for calling the verdict a “mockery of justice.” Evers was assassinated on June 12, 1963.

While at Parchman Prison, Kennard was sent to an outside hospital for a cancer operation. Doctors wanted him to come back in 30 days for additional treatment. Prison authorities refused to let him go and continued to force him to perform slave labor in the fields. When he was finally brought to the hospital again six months later, it was too late.

Black people in Mississippi and the Jackson Advocate newspaper never forgot Kennard. The good work of Adlai Stevenson High School students in Lincolnshire, Ill., and reporter Jerry Mitchell of the Jackson, Miss., Clarion Ledger helped revive his case.

Johnny Lee Roberts, who had earlier been coerced to testify against Kennard, declared under oath before a judge on Jan. 27 of this year that Kennard was innocent.

March 30 has been declared “Clyde Kennard” day in Mississippi. Even the conservative Republican governor, Barbour, issued a proclamation praising him.

Yet Barbour refuses to issue a pardon.

This former chairperson of the Republican National Committee may be thinking of all the other frame-up cases that a pardon for Kennard could open up.

Such as Willie McGee, who was executed on May 8, 1951, on phony rape charges despite a worldwide campaign to save him. The state’s electric chair was moved to Laurel, Miss., to give the local racists a thrill.

A few hours before he died, Kennard said, “I would be glad that this happened if it would only show people in this land where racism leads.”