Clyde Kennard died from complications of colon cancer and other illnesses on July 4, 1963, three weeks after the June 12 assassination of civil rights icon Medgar Evers and four-and-a-half months before the Nov. 23 assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
Although diagnosed with terminal cancer while in prison in 1961, Kennard was sent from the University Medical Center hospital back to the harsh work routine at Parchman prison.
A veteran of both World War II and the Korean Conflict, Kennard, a native of the Kelly Settlement north of Hattiesburg, filed his initial application to Mississippi Southern College (MSC) in 1955 and was denied because he could not supply the required references from five alumni of the college. He refused to give up and persisted in seeking entrance to MSC. Still seeking admission in August 1959, he was arrested and charged with traffic violations and being in possession of a large quantity of illegal alcohol while on campus. Who staged this arrest was a mystery at the time.
Noted author Devery S. Anderson explained Kennard’s fate in the discussion of his new book, “A Slow, Calculated Lynching: The Story of Clyde Kennard” (University Press of Mississippi) at the Department of History and Archives’ April 27 “History Is Lunch” program. Anderson’s book presents the most comprehensive narrative to date of how Kennard’s attempt to integrate Mississippi Southern College ended up with him being sent to prison on false charges of stealing $25 worth of chicken feed and of his contracting terminal cancer while locked up. The bold effort of Clyde Kennard had faded from history before a resurgence of interest in his cause cleared his name and granted him special honors at the University of Southern Mississippi and in the city of Hattiesburg.
Author Devery Anderson discusses life of Clyde Kennard during the April 26 History is Lunch at Mississippi Two Museums.
Anderson is also the author of another civil rights eye-opener, “Emmett Till: The Murder That Shocked the World and Propelled the Civil Rights Movement” published in 2015.
Anderson said there was a strong likelihood that the White Citizens Council, an anti-integrationist group made up of the leading white men in business, law, and the professions in nearly every municipality of the state, would have murdered Kennard if he had not been framed and sent to prison. The White Citizens Council was the “privatized” companion group to the State Sovereign Commission and was as determined as the KKK to preserve racial segregation at all costs. Racist U.S. Senator James O. Eastland of Sunflower County played a key role in establishing both the White Citizens Council and the State Sovereignty Commission in concert with Gov. J.P. Coleman, who had been state attorney general at the time of the 1954 Brown vs. Board decision. Eastland gained the willing assistance of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who allowed some of his top agents to transfer to work for the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission.
“Dudley Conner, who was the head of the citizens council in Hattiesburg, told Zack Van Landingham, the Sovereignty Commission investigator…that what Mississippi needs is a good lynching in the Kennard case,” Anderson said. “And he talked about plans of possibly putting dynamite in Kennard’s car. The WCC would’ve been willing to go to any extreme to get rid of Kennard. I think that had he persisted in the lawsuit talk, and had they not found a way to frame him, I’m sure they would have killed him.”
It was an ironic twist of fate that just as the Civil Rights Movement began to coalesce around Clyde Kennard’s noble attempt to integrate Mississippi Southern College (MSC), known today as the University of Southern Mississippi, state and national media turned their attention to more explosive civil rights stories that offered much greater shock value and drama for both editors and the public.
James Meredith’s violence-laden but successful integration of Ole Miss in September 1962, the two aforementioned assassinations, the 1963 Birmingham church bombings, and the Chaney-Schwerner-Goodman murders in Neshoba County in August 1964 all captured the nation’s attention as the Clyde Kennard failed and tragic attempt to integrate MSC receded into the background.
“Clyde Kennard is known to scholars of the Civil Rights Movement, but his name is not familiar to most Americans. It needs to be,” Meredith says in his preface to Anderson’s book. “He paved the way for many, and some, like me, learned from his mistakes as well as his perseverance.”
Meredith filed a lawsuit in May 1961 to gain admittance to Ole Miss and had the support of Medgar Evers’ national arm of the NAACP, as opposed to the state chapter which in this case would have been ineffective. After the Ole Miss appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court failed, Meredith had the full backing of the U.S. government, military and all, to support his enrollment at Ole Miss in September 1962.
“Clyde Kennard’s attempt to integrate a white school came after the U.S. Supreme Court decided in Brown v. Board of Education that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional,” Meredith said. “He had the law on his side. When I sought enrollment at Ole Miss, the law was on my side also. But that did not matter in Mississippi. From the moment of the Supreme Court ruling, Mississippi decided to fight back. Kennard lost his battle to get the state to conform to the law, and he paid a heavy price for those efforts.”
Dennis Dahmer, son of Hattiesburg’s martyred NAACP leader Vernon Dahmer, looks back on Clyde Kennard’s life as a shining example of what makes true heroes.
“If Clyde is to be remembered,” Dahmer said in a telephone interview, “I think he should be remembered as a decent person, religious person who always saw the best in other people who didn’t necessarily feel the same about him, and who believed that whatever your differences are, you can resolve them through dialogue.
“They arrested him for having illegal whiskey and wine in his car. He was a bootlegger, they said. The guy didn’t even drink. And both the Black and white folks who knew him knew it was a lie.
“The title of Devery Anderson’s book is appropriate. It was a cold, calculated lynching. The man was terminally ill. They knew he was terminally ill, denied him medical treatment after the doctor at the medical center had prescribed for him to be there every 90 days to treat this cancer. But the warden wouldn’t let him go. They meant to kill Clyde, and they did that to strike fear in the hearts of other Black folks about what you still don’t do in Mississippi. They in effect said we don’t care what the federal government says.”
HONORS AFTER DEATH
In February 2018, retired USM President Aubrey Lucas attended the unveiling of a Mississippi Freedom Trail marker honoring Kennard. The crowd stood in front of the Kennard-Washington building on the USM campus named for the now-acclaimed hero of 70 years before.
During the graduation ceremonies of 2018, the Black president of USM, Dr. Rodney Bennett, awarded a posthumous doctorate to Clyde Kennard. And the city of Hattiesburg dedicated a mile-long stretch of Highway 49 under the new name of the Clyde Kennard Memorial Highway.
“Clyde Kennard lost his life trying to do what he should not have had to do,” Aubrey Lucas said reflecting on the period of which he was never proud. “Kennard-Washington Hall stands in the center of this campus reminding us that the opportunity to be a student here will never again be denied because of one’s race.”
Unfortunately, Dr. Bennett, the university’s most widely respected leader, resigned from the presidency of USM in 2022.