Clyde Kennard
Courtesy the Clarion-Ledger
An image of Clyde Kennard from a January 1963 Mississippi Free Press article. Kennard fought for civil rights.

Clyde Kennard: A Soldier for Civil Rights and Integration

Dr. Dean Chavers

Clyde Kennard was a marked man when he applied for admission to the Mississippi Southern College in 1955, 1956, and 1959. Clyde, a Black veteran of the Korean War, had started his education at the University of Chicago after he left the Army. Born in 1927, he had enlisted at the end of World War II and served seven years, including a tour as a paratrooper in Korea during that war. When he left the Army to go back to school, he was a Technical Sergeant.

When he got out of the Army he moved to Chicago to live with his sister Sara Tarpley. He enrolled at the University of Chicago, where he finished three years of college. But then his stepfather died, leaving his mother Leona Smith destitute. With his Army money, he bought her a little chicken farm outside Eatonville. He moved back to take care of her in 1955, after being gone for 10 years. He taught Sunday School at the Mary Magdalene Baptist Church in Eatonville. He also directed the choir.

Clyde Kennard, then terminally ill, meeting sister Sara Tarpley on arrival in Chicago after release in 1963. (Wikipedia)

But the University of Southern Mississippi, as it is called now, rejected him. The president of the college, William D. McCain, and the racist governor, James P. Coleman, apparently conspired to keep him out of the all-white college. They were segregationists to the end.

They rejected the report of Dr. Aubrey K. Lucas, the director of admissions at the college. He wrote that all his contacts in the Black community held Clyde up as “a model of Christian decency.” He paid his bills, attended church regularly, worked hard, and was a highly intelligent individual. And he loved Mississippi.

James Plemon (J.P.) Coleman was governor of Mississippi from 1956-1960. (Courtesy Mississippi Department of Archives and History)

Instead, the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, an official agency of the state, framed him, claiming he had stolen some chicken feed. He was convicted and sentenced to seven years at the notorious Parchman Penitentiary, the worst prison in the U.S.

The first arrest of Clyde happened on September 15, 1959, when constables Charlie Ward and Lee Daniels of Hattiesburg arrested him for reckless driving. They claimed to have found five bottles of liquor under the back seat of his car. Since Mississippi was a dry state, Clyde was tried, convicted, and fined $600 by Justice of the Peace T. C. Hobby. That amounted to about three months of pay back then.

After Clyde had a meeting with the president, the two constables arrested him. Even though he had not been driving at the time, they charged him with reckless driving, and he was convicted.

Coleman offered to pay his tuition to attend a Black college, but Clyde refused to take it. Instead he kept applying to USM, thinking the Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954 would help him get in. The university, he explained in a letter published in the Hattiesburg American newspaper on December 6, 1958, was the closest to him. He could attend it and still run the farm and take care of his mother. In the letter, he explained that he was an integrationist, and urged the integration of the schools and colleges in the state.

The head of the Sovereignty Commission, a white racist agency, Zack Van Landingham, conspired to have his car bombed or to force him into an accident. Dudley Connor, a white lawyer in Hattiesburg and an active racist, collaborated with Van Landingham to frame Clyde.

He was arrested again on September 25, 1960 and tried for allegedly stealing $25 worth of chicken feed from the Forrest County Cooperative warehouse. His alleged accomplice, an illiterate Black man named Johnny Lee Roberts, testified against him. Johnny Lee got five years of probation and was released. An all-white jury convicted Clyde of the theft. They only deliberated for 10 minutes. Black people could not serve on juries in this most racist of states; it was in the state constitution. Judge Stanton A. Hall sentenced Clyde to the maximum prison term, seven years.

When Medgar Evars, the head of the Mississippi chapter of the NAACP, issued a statement that the conviction of Clyde was “a mockery of judicial justice,” Judge Hall cited him for contempt and fined him $100 and sentenced him to 30 days in jail. But the Mississippi Supreme Court overturned his conviction in 1961 and he served no jail time for the statement.

The truth about the frame-up was revealed when the records of the Sovereignty Commission were opened for review in 1998. Johnny Lee testified in 2005, “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.” He told this to Jerry Mitchell, an award-winning investigate reporter for the Clarion Ledger who had been working on the case for years. Johnny Lee was an employee of the co-op, and had permission to sell damaged feed.

At Parchman, Clyde had to work in the cotton fields, as slaves in that state had to do a hundred years before. He was there only a few years before he got cancer in 1961. It is possible that he was fed something in the prison that affected him.

Parchman Penitentiary is seen here in the early 1900s.

The monstrously racist governor, Ross Barnett, at first refused to pardon him, even when he was deathly ill from the disease. Barnett finally relented in January 1963, a year and a half later. He was finally released on parole, but died in July 1963 while living with his sister in Chicago. He was only 36 years old.

Ross Robert Barnett was governor of Mississippi from 1960-1964. (Courtesy Mississippi Department of Archives and History)

The racist Mississippi governor in 2005, Haley Barbour, refused to give in to the demands of dozens of leading citizens of the state and pardon Clyde. He said Clyde was already dead and did not need to be pardoned. The Mississippi State Parole Board also refused to grant Clyde a pardon.

Barbour, a former top lobbyist in Washington, D.C., made a serious run for President in 2012, finally losing the campaign. He had already headed the Republican Party for several years, but never shook his racist roots.

The real break in the case came when the Rev. Willie Grant, Clyde’s brother-in-law, and Clyde’s niece, Valerie Kennard, prevailed on the Center for Wrongful Convictions at the Northwestern University School of Law to pursue the case. They filed a petition with the governor, which was finally honored.

When I got stationed at Columbus Air Force Base in Mississippi three years after Clyde died, I experienced some of the rotten system of Mississippi justice. It never got to me personally, but it got to some of my friends. We were told on our first day there not to drink in the bars around the base, which was north of the town of Columbus. The constable in that area was a tough old bird who lived on “turnkey fees.” He had made enough money to buy a large farm.

When he arrested you for drinking, it didn’t matter if you had even had a drink out of the beer you had just bought. He charged you with drinking in public and if you resisted and said you were not drunk, you got a second charge thrown at you—resisting arrest.

He got $25 for every person he put in jail, and another $25 when that person was released from jail. Ten arrests a night netted him $500, which was a month’s pay in 1966 for the rest of us. When my girlfriend’s sister’s boyfriend ran for sheriff of Lowndes County in 1968, he was one of 13 people in the race. Everyone wanted to be sheriff and make some real money off of turnkey fees.

Dr. Glen Pearson, who was late civil rights pioneer Clyde Kennard’s physician, joins others on Wednesday, May 17, 2006, in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, in the gallery as he strains to hear the ruling from Forrest County Circuit Court Judge Bob Helfrich in the case of the late Clyde Kennard. Helfrich threw out the 1960 burglary conviction of Korean War veteran Kennard, a black man wrongfully accused of a crime after he attempted to enroll in an all-white Mississippi college in the 1950s. (AP Photo/The Hattiesburg American, George Clark)

I never drank around the base, and never had a problem. But a few of my friends broke the rule and had to pay. At that time the highest paid public official in the U.S. was not the President. It was the Sheriff of Hinds County, Mississippi, the county which contains the state capital, Jackson. He got a fee for every commercial vehicle in the state every year, which allegedly amounted to $400,000 a year back then, or three or four times what the President made.

I thank Clyde for what he tried to do. It finally paid off for Indians 15 year later. When I got to UC Berkeley in 1968, I was the fourth Indian student on the campus. The first was LaNada Boyer, second was Patty Silvas, and the third was Lehman Brightman. There were no Indian students at UC Davis, Sacramento State, San Jose State, UC Santa Cruz, San Francisco State, and a host of other California colleges. But the colleges were starting to open the doors and let minorities in—finally. The Financial Aid program, passed in 1966 by Pres. Lyndon Johnson, really helped.

Almost none of us know the story of Clyde Kennard. But he was a soldier in the battle for civil rights, college admissions, and equal rights. Medgar Evars, Dr. Martin Luther King, and other Black leaders admired and praised him.

Late civil rights pioneer Clyde Kennard’s physician Dr. Glen Pearson, left, talks with Ellie Dahmer, after Forrest County Circuit Judge Bob Helfrich exonerated Clyde Kennard during a hearing on Wednesday May 17, 2006, in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Helfrich threw out the 1960 burglary conviction of now-passed Korean War veteran Kennard, a black man wrongfully accused of a crime after he attempted to enroll in an all-white Mississippi college in the 1950s. (AP Photo/The Hattiesburg American, George Clark)

The recent failure to convict the man in Rapid City, Trace O’Connell, who threw beer on Indian students at a hockey game and called them “prairie niggers,” is evidence that racism is still alive. South Dakota, the Mississippi of the North, is just one of the places that are keeping it alive. The students were only 12 years old, and were scared and mortified. They left before the game was over.

RELATED: Man Accused of Hurling Beer, Racial Slurs at Native American Kids Will Not Face Jail Time, Judge Says

Dr. Dean Chavers is director of Catching the Dream, a national scholarship program for Native college students. His next book is “The American Indian Dropout.” His e-mail is [email protected].

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