The saddest story of the whole movement

With all the excitement around the recent re-election of Barack Obama I have been reading some accounts of the US civil rights movement. I came across the story of Clyde Kennard which according to John Dittmer, a notable historian of Mississippi’s civil rights movement, is “the saddest story of the whole movement”.

A full account of this story by Prof Timothy J Minchin and Emeritus Prof John A Salmond of Latrobe University was recently published as “The saddest story of the whole movement: The Clyde Kennard case and the Search for Racial Reconciliation in Mississippi 1955-2007″.

There is no denying this is a very sad story but it also highlights the amazing transformation in race relations in the US in the past 50 years. Below is a summary of Minchin and Salmond’s article.

Clyde Kennard was born into a farming family in Hattiesburg in the southern US state of Mississippi on June 12 1927. Growing up he was quiet and studious and he moved to Chicago when he was 12 to attend school there. He joined the US Army when he was 18 and served for 7 years which included active service in Korea and a term in Germany.

In 1952 he left the Army with an honourable discharge. He used some of his savings to purchase a 20 acre farm for his mother and step father in Hattiesburg and Clyde began studies at the University of Chicago. In 1955 his stepfather died so Clyde left Chicago to return to Hattiesburg to help his mother run the family farm.

He had completed three years of a Political Science major and understandably wished to continue his studies at Mississippi Southern College which was 15 minutes down the road from his home.

There was only one problem – no African American student had ever been admitted to Mississippi Southern – or to any other university in that State. Mississippi had done more than any other US state to ensure that education remain segregated, and the Mississippi State legislature had set up a specially constituted Sovereignty Commission with the sole mission of resisting outside efforts to impose integration on the State’s education system.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored Peoples (NAACP) declared in 1960 that “any negro who applies to a ‘white’ school in Mississippi is a marked man”. In 1958 when Clennon King, a black minister of religion, attempted to enrol in the University of Mississippi he was taken to the state mental hospital and held there for two weeks “under observation”. Two weeks later he was pronounced sane and did not try to re-enrol again. Soon after this he left the State.

Clyde Kennard knew all this but believed that his cause was a just one and that he would be able to win the administration of Mississippi Southern College over to his cause. He first applied in 1955 and this application was rejected because he could not provide character references from five alumni who lived in the same county. Of course all the alumni were white and in the heavily segregated community Clyde had no opportunity to even know who the alumni were. When he asked the college administration for a list of the alumni he was told that no list was available.

In 1958 Clyde announced in a letter to the local newspaper that he intended to enrol for the term that commenced the following January. The Sovereignty Commission by this stage were quite alarmed at his persistence. They discussed a number of schemes to prevent him from enrolling. Dudley Connor, who was on the Commission and lead the White Citizens’ Committee in Hattiesburg, told the Commission that he could easily arrange the young man’s killing promising that “Kennard’s car could be hit by a train or he could have some accident on the highway and nobody would ever know the difference”. Others on the Commission rejected this option because they feared it would be counter-productive and turn Clyde Kennard into a martyr.

In early January 1959 Clyde met with the Governor of Mississippi James P Coleman and the President of Mississippi Southern College William McCain in the Governor’s office. He was persuaded by them that it “perhaps… would not be in the best interest of the general community” for him to attend Mississippi Southern. There is some conjecture about what caused Clyde to change his mind – some believe he was promised a place at the College if he delayed his application until after the upcoming elections for Governor.

On September 1959 Clyde informed President McCain that he intended enrolling for the September semester. The Sovereignty Commission tried a number of strategies to dissuade Clyde including foreclosing on his poultry farm and confiscating his stock, and pressuring conservative African American leaders in the State to meet with Clyde to get him to change his mind.

When it became apparent that Clyde was not going to change his mind the authorities went for the jugular. The Poultry cooperative that had foreclosed on the Kennard farm was burgled in September 1960 and five bags of chicken feed worth $25 were stolen. A young black employee Johnny Lee Roberts admitted taking the feed but claimed that Clyde Kennard had planned the break-in.

Clyde was arrested and charged with accessory to burglary and in November an all-white jury took only ten minutes to convict him and he was sentenced to seven years gaol – the maximum term available.

He was sent to the high security Parchman Penitentiary where he had to work long hard days on the prison’s cotton plantation. The purpose of this plantation was to break the spirit of any African Americans who had the temerity to challenge the segregation laws. After a year working in the fields Clyde began complaining of severe abdominal pains.

The pains intensified and he was sent to the University of Mississippi Hospital in Jackson where a large lesion was discovered in his left colon. In June 1962 the hospital librarian reported that doctors had given Kennard only a 20% chance of living five years and she recommended that Clyde be given a parole on medical grounds. This recommendation was ignored and he was sent back to the prison plantation to struggle on. He soon lost 40 pounds in weight and other prisoners were forced to carry him into the fields and return him to his cell when he collapsed.

After his situation was brought to national attention by the NAACP, Clyde was released from prison in early 1963 and died on 4 July that year. Author John Howard Griffin visited Clyde Kennard shortly before his death and reported that Clyde “lay with a sheet pulled up over his face so no one could see the grimace of pain”.

Clyde told Griffin that it would all be worthwhile “if it would only show this country where racism finally leads”.

4 July 1963 may have been the end of Clyde’s life but he left a legacy. In 1965 two women Raylawni Branch and Elaine Armstrong became the first African Americans to attend what had now become the University of Southern Mississippi. By 1993, three decades after Clyde’s death, 1702 African Americans were attending the University and this represented 14% of total enrolment. In the town of Hattiesburg schools were integrated, job opportunities had improved and African Americans had won a wide range of elected offices.

And 45 years later in 2008, Barack Obama was elected the 43rd President of the United States.

Footnote: In December 2005 reporter Jerry Mitchell tracked down witness Johnny Lee Roberts who told him that Clyde Kennard had “nothing to do with stealing the chicken feed” and that he had been arrested “not because of the feed but because he was trying to go to Southern”. 45 years later Roberts wanted to come clean because he had “always felt bad about what had happened to Clyde”.


About peterhanley1

Peter Hanley has lived in North Queensland for more than 30 years. His interests include human rights, social justice, sustainability and community development. True North explores issues in these areas.
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One Response to The saddest story of the whole movement

  1. Peter Kearney says:

    Clyde Kennard – a sad, sad story and well told Peter. Thanks for finding and retelling these stories from our recent history. Your perspective brings hope. PK

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