Clyde Kennard: A Little-Known Civil Rights Pioneer

Clyde Kennard put his life on the line in the 1950s when he attempted to desegregate higher education in Mississippi. Kennard, a little-known civil rights pioneer, tried to become the first African American to attend Mississippi Southern College, now The University of Southern Mississippi, in Hattiesburg. In doing so, he ran afoul of the White political establishment and paid a heavy price. After his tragic death, his story was overshadowed by other developments in the civil rights movement. Decades later, however, his case was taken up by civil rights activists, eventually resulting in Kennard receiving due recognition for his sacrifice.

Born in Hattiesburg on June 12, 1927, into a farming family, Kennard was one of five children.  Quiet and studious, at age twelve he moved to Chicago to live with his sister and attend school. At age eighteen, he joined the U.S. Army and served for seven years, including stints in Germany and Korea, and received an honorable discharge. Upon returning to civilian life, he used some of his savings to make a down payment on a twenty-acre farm in Eatonville, Mississippi, for his mother, Leona Smith, and stepfather.
In 1955, however, Kennard’s stepfather died and Kennard left his studies at the University of Chicago to help his mother, who was in her sixties, run the family farm. Having completed nearly three years of a political science major, Kennard wanted to finish his degree. As there were no Black colleges in the area and Mississippi Southern was just a fifteen-minute drive from his Eatonville home, he took the radical step of applying for admission to the all-white institution.

In search of a degree

Kennard’s initial application in 1955 was denied because he could not supply references from five alumni from his home county. Refusing to give up, Kennard asked college president William D. McCain for a list of all Mississippi Southern alumni in Forrest County, only to be told that “such a list was not available.” Privately, McCain confided to the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, a state agency established to preserve segregation and track potential threats to the White hierarchy, that Kennard’s grades were “above average” and that he had “met all of the requirements with the exception of furnishing the five recommendations from alumni in the county from which he was applying.”

Kennard persisted. On December 6, 1958, Kennard wrote a detailed letter to the local newspaper, the Hattiesburg American, in which he announced his intention to enroll at Mississippi Southern for the January quarter. In the letter, Kennard laid out his “creed,” which was based on the belief that all individuals should be judged by their ability rather than their skin color. Sovereignty Commission’s investigators, led by former FBI agent Zack J. VanLandingham, responded by trying to find “derogatory information” about Kennard to sabotage his application. They explored every possible aspect of the applicant’s life, including his financial history, his personal life, and his employment record.  State leaders, including Governor James P. Coleman, soon realized that Kennard’s application was particularly problematic because there were no obvious grounds for refusing it.

VanLandingham hatched a scheme to short-circuit Kennard’s efforts by having conservative Black educators “call on Clyde Kennard and persuade him that it was in the best interest of all concerned that he withdraw and desist from filing an application for admission to Mississippi Southern College.” Kennard, however, refused to change his mind. Governor Coleman then decided to meet with Kennard personally. At the meeting early in 1959, Coleman told Kennard that “it was not the appropriate time” for him to attend Mississippi Southern and that “it was going to take time to change.” Pressured by both Coleman and McCain, Kennard agreed to withdraw his application. In a short statement to the press, he reiterated the governor’s message that it would “perhaps … not be in the best interest of the general community” if he attended Mississippi Southern.

Reapplies to Mississippi Southern

Kennard had not given up, however, and on August 26, 1959, he informed McCain that he intended to reapply for the fall semester. On September 8, 1959, he wrote a seven-page letter to admissions director Aubrey K. Lucas in which he demolished all of the traditional arguments used to defend segregation. Kennard finished by declaring that he was fully prepared to present his case before the federal courts. “What other course can I take?” he wrote.

On September 15, when Kennard attempted to register on campus, McCain derailed him on a technicality, claiming that he had not submitted a transcript from the University of Chicago, which Kennard disputed. Temporarily thwarted, Kennard left McCain’s office and returned to his vehicle only to be arrested by two Forrest County constables on trumped up charges of “driving at an excessive speed” and “illegal possession of whiskey.” Friends knew the latter was patently false as Kennard was a devout Baptist and never drank alcohol.

Two weeks later local judge T. C. Hobby found Kennard guilty of both charges, despite the flaws in the case against him. Although these actions were meant to deter Kennard, they did not work. On September 25 he published another letter in the Hattiesburg American. “If there is one quality of Americans which would set them apart from almost any other peoples,” he noted, “it is the history of their struggle for liberty and justice under the law. … Truly, the history of America is inseparable from the ideals of John Locke, John Stuart Mill and Jean Rousseau.”

Kennard appealed his conviction, unsuccessfully, all the way to the Mississippi Supreme Court, and the United States Supreme Court denied a hearing. Throughout, the Sovereignty Commission closely monitored Kennard.

A sentence to state prison

Kennard’s efforts to attend Mississippi Southern ended on September 25, 1960, when the Forrest County Cooperative, which had foreclosed on his chicken farm, was burglarized. Five bags of chicken feed worth $25.00 were stolen. A young employee, Johnny Lee Roberts, admitted taking the feed but claimed that Kennard had planned the break-in. Kennard was arrested and charged with accessory to burglary, a felony under Mississippi law. In November, an all-white jury took just ten minutes to convict Kennard, and he was sentenced to the maximum seven years in state prison. As a convicted felon, Kennard could not be admitted to any of Mississippi’s all-white colleges. In return for his testimony, much of which was confused and contradictory, Roberts was returned to his co-op job on probation.

Once sentenced, Kennard received brutal treatment in the high-security Parchman Penitentiary where he had to work long days on the prison’s cotton plantation.  His only respite came on Sundays when he was able to teach illiterate inmates reading and writing. After a year of hard field work, Kennard began to complain of severe abdominal pains. As his condition rapidly worsened, he was taken to the University of Mississippi Hospital in Jackson, where doctors found a large lesion in his left colon. Kennard received no medical treatment, however, and was sent back to the cotton fields at Parchman. In June 1962, hospital medical record librarian Mary Senter reported that doctors had given Kennard only a 20 percent chance of living five years. As a result, she recommended that Kennard be given early parole on medical grounds, a plea that was ignored by Governor Ross Barnett. Although he lost forty pounds, his captors accused him of feigning illness in order to avoid work. Guards even instructed other prisoners to carry Kennard into the fields and return him to his cell when he collapsed.

As Kennard’s story began to seep out, supporters launched a campaign to free him. In February 1963, after two months of publicity and protest, including appeals from Kennard’s mother, Barnett suspended Kennard’s sentence and released him.

After release from prison, Kennard refused to criticize his captors but instead expressed his desire to return to his chicken farm and help his mother. Too weak to work the farm, Kennard instead had to undergo emergency surgery in Chicago, but the intestinal cancer continued to spread. In the summer of 1963, John Howard Griffin, the author of Black Like Me, visited Kennard and found that he had withered away to less than a hundred pounds. Griffin vowed to tell Kennard’s story to a wider audience.

When the end came on July 4, 1963, indications were that Kennard was at peace. His “Ode to the Death Angel,” composed just three days before his death, closed with the powerful lines: “It’s true my eyes are dim/My hands are growing cold/Well take me on then, that I might at least become my soul.”  The thirty-six-year-old Kennard was buried in his native Forrest County, at the Baptist church where he had once taught Sunday School and directed the youth choir.

Efforts to overturn conviction

Griffin, meanwhile, started a campaign to publicize Kennard’s treatment. In a 1964 interview, he said that the little-known Kennard was “one of the great men of our times.” Griffin also lectured to northern audiences about Kennard’s fate. In the years after Kennard’s death, however, it was difficult to tell the story in full. Overshadowed by the James Meredith 1962 enrollment at the University of Mississippi, and other episodes of the civil rights struggle, Kennard’s treatment never received much media coverage, and it dropped out of the news. In 1965, two years after his death, Raylawni Branch and Elaine Armstrong became the first African Americans to attend the newly designated University of Southern Mississippi.

Many years later, in a much-changed political climate, Kennard’s sacrifice became major news. The key breakthrough to exonerate Kennard came in September 1991 when a Jackson newspaper, the Clarion-Ledger, published secret Sovereignty Commission documents that showed Kennard had been framed, leading to public calls to reopen the case. (See link to commission documents related to Kennard under Selected sources below.)  By 1998, the American Civil Liberties Union had won a protracted legal battle to force the state of Mississippi to unseal the Sovereignty Commission (the commission was abolished in 1977). Finally, in 2006, Johnny Lee Roberts, the co-op employee who had provided the crucial testimony leading to the 1960 conviction of Kennard in the Forrest County Cooperative burglary, told Clarion-Ledger reporter Jerry Mitchell that Kennard had “nothing to do with the stealing of the chicken feed” and that he had been arrested “not because of the feed but because he was trying to go to Southern.” Mitchell’s article concluded that the decorated Army veteran had been “locked up for a crime he never committed.”

Barry Bradford, a social studies teacher at Adlai E. Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, Illinois, became a prime mover in the effort to overturn Kennard’s conviction. Using civil rights cases as class projects, he and his students had already helped get the “Mississippi Burning” case reopened. In 2005, they joined forces with Professor Steve Drizin of Northwestern University Law School’s Center on Wrongful Convictions. They were soon joined by many prominent Mississippians, from former federal judge Charles H. Pickering to LaKeisha Bryant, president of The University of Southern Mississippi’s Afro-American Student Association. Bryant presented a petition, with more than 1,500 signatures, seeking a pardon to Governor Haley Barbour in 2006. Although Barbour asserted his belief that Kennard was innocent, he noted that he could not act on the petition because Mississippi law had no provision for pardoning the dead. Meanwhile, the Mississippi Senate had unanimously passed a resolution honoring Kennard as the “forgotten civil rights pioneer.”

Clyde Kennard Day

On March 30, 2006, Bryant led a large student delegation to Jackson to attend a ceremony honoring Kennard in the Mississippi Senate Chamber. The governor read a proclamation stating that “Clyde Kennard, if he were still living, would be entitled to have his rights restored, and were he still living, his rights would have been restored during this Administration.” Although Barbour declared the day to be “Clyde Kennard Day,” Kennard’s growing phalanx of supporters nevertheless left the ceremony unsatisfied and determined to continue their fight to clear his name completely.  

Thus, on April 12, Drizin presented the petition to the Mississippi Parole Board. The Parole Board deliberated for a month before rejecting it on the grounds that “a more appropriate and satisfying remedy may be available to exonerate the name of Mr. Clyde Kennard.”  At the suggestion of Judge Pickering supporters presented their case to the court where Kennard had originally been convicted — the Circuit Court of Forrest County. Pickering suggested a petition of exoneration, in effect asking the court to clear Kennard of his original conviction. The list of co-petitioners was again impressive, including Governor Barbour.

On May 16, 2006, Circuit Judge Robert Helfrich wasted no time in dealing with the matter. After a twenty-minute hearing, he declared Kennard innocent of the “bogus charges” on which he had been convicted, asserting that “because this matter did begin here, it should end here.” It was not to him “a black-white issue,” he continued. “It is a right-wrong issue. To correct that wrong I’m compelled to do the right thing and declare Mr. Kennard innocent.” After a moment’s stunned silence, there was jubilation. Kennard’s family and friends rejoiced. Many Mississippians, White and Black, also rejoiced that day, while in Illinois Barry Bradford took quiet pride in a job well done.

Timothy J. Minchin is professor of North American history at LaTrobe University in Melbourne, Australia. John A. Salmond is emeritus professor of American history at LaTrobe University. This article is condensed from their article, “The Saddest Story of the Whole Movement”: The Clyde Kennard Case and the Search for Racial Reconciliation in Mississippi, 1955-2007, which appeared in The Journal of Mississippi History, Volume LXXXI No. 3, Fall 2009. The article won the Mississippi Historical Society 2009 Halsell Prize.

Lesson Plan

  • Clyde Kennard
    Clyde Kennard. Photograph from a January 1963 Mississippi Free Press. Courtesy the Clarion-Ledger.
  • William D. McCain
    William D. McCain, president of Southern Mississippi College. Courtesy Mississippi Department of Archives and History.
  • J. P. Coleman
    Governor J. P. Coleman. Photograph, 1956, courtesy McCain Library and Archives, Special Collections, University of Southern Mississippi.
  • Raylawni Branch
    Raylawni Branch. In 1965, two years after Kennard's death, Branch and Elaine Armstrong became the first African Americans to attend the University of Southern Mississippi. Reproduced by permission of McCain Library and Archives, Raylawni Branch Collection, University of Southern Mississippi.

Selected sources:

Web site (accessed August 2010)

Mississippi Sovereignty Commission papers, Mississippi Department of Archives and History


Branch, Taylor. Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988.

Dittmer, John. Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995.

Katagiri, Yasuhiro. The Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission: Civil Rights and States’ Rights. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2001.

Newspaper and archives

Mitchell, Jerry. “The Clyde Kennard Story,” Jackson The Clarion-Ledger. December 31, 2005.

Civil Rights Documentation Project, Special Collections Department, McCain Library and Archives, The University of Southern Mississippi.