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