Monday, January 19, 2015

Civil Rights Activism in America: The story of Clyde Kennard

Clyde Kennard. Photograph from a January 1963 Mississippi Free Press.
Courtesy the Clarion-Ledger.

On June 12, 1927, Clyde Kennard was born to a farming family in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.  At age 12, he left Hattiesburg to move to Chicago, with his older sister, in order to attend school.

Now this act might be lost on most people today, but in 1940, the chances for a black farm kid, living and working in rural Mississippi, to receive much of a formal education was nearly impossible.  Segregation (aka, "the Plessy Doctrine" or Plessy v Ferguson decision) was in full oppressive force and, with it, the absolute refusal to provide anything close to an "equal" educational opportunity for anyone not quite white enough to pass the restrictively rigid and institutionalized racism that ruled America.

In Mississippi, this was status quo.

From "Mississippi's School Equalization Program, 1945-1954: 'A Last Gasp to Try to Maintain a Segregated Educational System'" (Bolton, C. C. (2000). Mississippi's School Equalization Program, 1945-1954: "A Last Gasp to Try to Maintain a Segregated Educational System" The Journal of Southern History, 66(4): 781-814):

.... Although many black Mississippians actually endorsed a justly administered equalization policy, white leaders proved hesitant to spend millions to upgrade black schools without an explicit pledge of support from black leaders to maintain Jim Crow education...

...During the late 1930s and 1940s, for the first time since Reconstruction, serious public
discussions also occurred among white Mississippians about how to improve black education...

Those white Mississippians who began to call for greater equalization between white and black public schools generally made sure to emphasize that their ultimate motive remained preserving white privileges and saving school segregation. When Percy H. Easom, the supervisor of black schools for the state's Department of Education and a white man truly interested in advancing the cause of black schooling in the state, asked the state legislature for improvements in the training of black teachers in 1938, he carefully couched his request for change in the language of white supremacy: "[I]t is not so much a question of what the colored people deserve as it is a question of what the white people of Mississippi deserve. The white people deserve to have something
done to improve the status of their colored people. Do not the white people depend upon the colored people for their labor supply, for their tenant farmers, for their looks, for their nurses, for their brickmasons, for their plasterers, for their chauffeurs, etc.?"  [note from author: my bold] As the threats to segregated education began to appear more visibly on the horizon, Easom began to emphasize not only the benefits of equalization but also the danger to continued segregation if some type of equalization program was not pursued. At a speech before the Indianola Rotary Club in 1946 Easom reiterated his theme of how black educational advances benefited whites, and he also suggested that segregation could only be preserved if whites made a sustained attempt to address long ignored black educational needs. Given such self-serving attitudes about why black education should be improved, it is not surprising that white Mississippians typically endorsed equalization plans that provided only the most minimal of changes in the operation of the state's dual educational system. Real educational equalization would have required a vigorous and sustained program to close the yawning gap that existed between white and black education at the end of World War II.

In order to understand just how feeble the state's post—World War II equalization efforts were, it is important first to recognize how the operation of state-enforced school segregation over the preceding four decades had altered Mississippi education. In the late nineteenth century, white and black education, while unequally funded, remained almost everywhere equally inadequate, except in the state's largest towns. Most rural schools in the state had short terms, few supplies, and poorly paid teachers in one-, two-, or three-teacher operations. But during the first two decades of the twentieth century, Mississippi, like other southern states, dramatically upgraded white schools, while black education—receiving only limited state aid—languished, despite valiant efforts from black citizens and assistance from northern philanthropists.

Perhaps the most important of the Progressive-era reforms to improve white rural schools in Mississippi and other southern states was school consolidation, which allowed small schools to combine to form larger, graded schools, with at least one teacher for each grade. At the same time, control of these consolidated schools passed from local school trustees to centralized, usually countywide, school authorities who gained the power to raise taxes on a district or countywide basis. The modernized school districts used their newly available local funds to improve white schools by extending the school term, raising teacher salaries, and instituting a system of public transportation of students to the larger and more amply furnished consolidated schools. Although southern whites frequently objected to consolidation because of the additional taxes or the loss of local control, the reform increasingly gained popularity as a mechanism for increasing the educational benefits available to the white youth of the South's rural districts.

The Mississippi legislature's initial school consolidation measure, passed in 1910, provided for the creation of rural school districts that could levy taxes and issue bonds. Over the next thirty five years, whites took advantage of the new law to initiate a massive consolidation of their schools. In the 1909-10 school year, Mississippi had 4,256 rural white schools; by 1946, the state had 861 consolidated white schools and only 164 that had not yet been consolidated. State leaders hailed the changing structure of white education as a dramatic improvement...

...As a general rule, whites, who controlled all county governments in the state because of the disfranchisement of black citizens, did not extend this basic technique of school modernization to black education. During the 1909-10 school year, the state had 3,006 black schools, a number that had increased to 3,737 by 1946, only 100 of which had been consolidated. Between 1910, when the state enacted consolidation legislation, and 1930, only fifteen black schools were consolidated in the entire state, and almost half of these were in Forrest County, located in south Mississippi. This county clearly had the early progressive edge among the state's counties, at least in terms of assisting the development of black education. Before consolidation, the county had twenty-six black schools, only two of which were located in structures clearly identifiable as schoolhouses; the remainder held classes in one- room shacks or even sawmill sheds. The average length of the school term in these institutions was just forty days; the average white school term at the time was not much better, only fifty-nine days...."

At the age of 18, Clyde Kennard joined the U.S. Army for 7 years, serving in both Germany and Korea, before receiving an honorable discharge. Upon his return to civilian life, he put a down-payment on 20 acres for his mother and step-father outside of Eatonville, Forrest County, Mississippi, but remained in Chicago to study at the University of Chicago.

Upon the death of his step-father in 1955, Clyde was forced to return to Mississippi in order to assist his widowed mother (now in her 60's) with the farm.

Clyde had already completed 3 years of study towards a Political Science degree while in Chicago so wanted to complete his final year while assisting his mother with the farm.

William D. McCain, president of Southern Mississippi College. Courtesy Mississippi Department of Archives and History

In 1955, one year after the Brown v Topeka Board of Education decision, Clyde was determined to complete his education. Since there were no black colleges in the area, Clyde applied at the all white Mississippi Southern - a fifteen minute drive from his family farm. That was the beginning of his trouble.

Mississippi still would not desegregate. Clyde was denied admission because the school stated he needed and could not supply written recommendations from at least five alumni from his home county. When Clyde asked for a list of Alumni so he could request recommendation letters, the college president, William D. McCain, told Clyde that “such a list was not available.”  Apparently Clyde had above average scores and met all other requirements with the exception of those letters.

Not to be deterred, Clyde applied once again, but this time, he wrote a letter to the editor of Hattiesburg American, the local newspaper, announcing his intent to apply for the January, 1959, quarter at Mississippi Southern.

From Zinn Education Project ("Letter to the editor the Hattiesburg American about race and integration." by Clyde Kennard, 1959):

Route 1, Box 70
Hattiesburg, Mississippi
September 25, 1959

THE RACE QUESTION

Editor,

The charge that any person who believes in any form of integration of the races is a Communist or an out-side agitator has been made so constantly and with such force that it would not surprise me if there are some people who are innocent enough to believe, if not all, at least some portion of that charge. It is for the benefit of these unfortunate people that I review, briefly, the fundamental principle upon which the conviction of the integrationists is based.

Most basic to our beliefs about the race question in America today is that there can be no racial segregation without some racial discrimination, and that there cannot be a complete racial equalization without some racial integration.

Now this principle is an easy one for us to follow, for it holds as true in human history, especially American History, as it does in logic. Reason tells us that two things, different in location, different in constitution, different in origin, and different in purpose cannot possibly be equal. History has verified this conclusion. For nearly a century now the State of Mississippi has been under a supposedly separate but equal system. Let us ask ourselves, does the history of the system support the theory of the segregationists or the theory of the integrationists? What segregationist in his right mind would honestly claim that the facilities for the two races are equal? Still segregationists say, give us a little more time, we are really making progress. Perhaps they are making progress of some kind, but human life is not long enough to extend their time. They have had nearly a hundred years to prove their theory, and so far they are no closer to proof than when they began.

The differences which we now have over this matter of segregation versus integration have, unfortunately, been characterized by some as a mortal contest between out-side agitators and-or Communists, and peaceful, law-abiding citizens. This is furthest from the truth. The question is whether or not citizens of the same country, the same state, the same city, shall have equal opportunities to earn their living, to select the people who shall govern them, and raise and educate their children in a free democratic manner: or whether or not because of the accident of color, one half of the citizens shall be excluded from society as though they had leprosy?

If there is one quality of Americans which would set them apart from almost any other peoples, it is the history of their struggle for liberty and justice under the law. Lincoln has rightly said that this nation was conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Truly, the history of America is inseparable from the ideals of John Locke, John Stuart Mill and Jean Rousseau. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, says our Declaration of Independence, that all men are created equal.” How different that statement is in spirit from the one which says: Before I see my child go to school with a Negro, I will destroy the whole school system. How different in virtue is the statement of Patrick Henry which says, “I know not what course others may take, but as for me give me liberty or give me death,” and the one which says, before I see a Negro with liberty I had rather see him dead.

I find it indeed interesting that the people who come closest to the thinking of Fascists and Communists in their activities should accuse the integrationists of that very thing. Is it the segregationists or the integrationists who are employing secret investigators to search the records and to apply pressure on any one suspected of opposing the present dictatorship of the minority by the majority? Is it the segregationists or the integrationists who are preaching the doctrine of the superiority of one race over another? Is it the segregationists or the integrationists who are dogmatically suppressing the aspirations of nearly half the people of this great state for their inalienable right to participate in their government?

The segregationists give as their reason for not allowing Negroes to participate more fully in the general community activities that ninety-five percent of the Negroes are not interested, which would leave only five percent of the Negroes are interested. Now, assuming that their statement is correct, and knowing that no person nor group of people in the United States has the right to forbid even one single person his constitutional rights, what accounts for their actions? Some declare that the northern states can permit integration because they have only a few Negroes, but the South can’t do that because the South has so many Negroes. Well, according to their own estimates, only five percent of the Negroes in the South are interested in the general community activities, and five percent of the Negroes in any community would certainly not weigh very heavily in any critical issue even if we were to assume that they would all vote the same way. On the other hand, if a majority of the Negro people in this State desires to participate to the fullest extent in the general community activities and are being forbidden to do so either through fear or ignorance, then the segregationists of this State are guilty of one of the strangest and probably the most tragic dictatorships yet recorded by history.

It is an easy matter, I suppose, for White people to misunderstand the aspirations of Negroes; this is understandable. But we have no desire for revenge in our hearts. What we want is to be respected as men and women, given an opportunity to compete with you in the great and interesting race of life. We want your friends to be our friends; we want your enemies to be our enemies; we want your hopes and ambitions to be our hopes and ambitions, and your joys and sorrows to be our joys and sorrows.

The big question seems to be, can we achieve this togetherness in our time? If the segregationists have their way we shall not. For instead of preaching brotherly love and cooperation they are declaring the superiority of one race and the inferiority of the other. Instead of trying to show people how much they are alike, they are busy showing them how much they differ. Instead of appointing a commission to study the problem to determine whether integration or segregation is the best policy for Mississippi at this time, they appointed a commission to try to maintain segregation at all cost whether it is the best policy or not the best policy.

In this matter I like to quote from the great Indian leader, Mahatma Gandhi, in his discourse on the existence of God. He says: “In the midst of death, life persists; in the midst of untruth, truth persists; in the midst of darkness light persists.”

So, let it be, in our case.

Respectfully submitted,

Clyde Kennard

The powerful Mississippi Sovereignty Commission (headed by a former FBI agent, Zack J. VanLandingham) , a state agency created after Brown v. Topeka Board of Ed., whose purpose was to preserve segregation as they tracked any "threats" or potential threats against the white hierarchy firmly entrenched in the state) was not happy. They began to investigate Kennard, calling him a "race agitator," for anything they could find that would sabotage his latest application to the college - anything from his past employment, military, personal or financial life history that could be used against him.  Much to their chagrin, the Commission could find nothing in Clyde's history that could be used to keep him out of the college or used to deny his application.

The Governor was dismayed but VanLandingham was not through yet. Vanlandingham tried to manipulate Clyde by having "conservative black educators" dissuade Clyde from pursuing his application at Mississippi Southern - Clyde would not budge.  The governor tried by offering him free tuition at any out-of-state college of his choosing, but Clyde insisted he wanted to be with his family, and, again, refused to withdraw. The Governor and the president of the college, McCain, continued their pressure on Kennard and after another private meeting, Clyde agreed to withdraw his latest application but he did not give up his dream.

In the Fall of 1959, Clyde Kennard informed both the president of Mississippi Southern, McCain, and the admissions director Aubrey K. Lucas, that he was re-applying for admissions. When Clyde returned to the admissions office in September, he was told he was missing one transcript from the University of Chicago. Clyde knew this was not true but had to come back later with another copy of the document.

Upon returning to his car to leave, he was met by two Forrest County constables and arrested on the spot for “driving at an excessive speed” and “illegal possession of whiskey.” (the latter was a completely false allegation contrived by the Sovereignty Commission. According to friends, Clyde, as a devout Baptist, never drank). Two weeks later, he was quickly, convicted of both charges, which Clyde appealed going all the way to the US Supreme Court - He was denied even a hearing.

The Sovereignty Commission tracked Kennard's actions and his appeals. In September, 1960, Kennard was arrested once again.


Clyde Kennard was arrested and charged with conspiracy to commit burglary, tried in an all white court and convicted (in a 10 minute deliberation) by an all white jury and sentenced to 7 years in prison. With a felony record, he was no longer eligible to apply or attend any university.

The actual perpetrator of the crime, Johnny Lee Roberts, was let off in a deal made with the prosecutor, in return for his contradictory and false testimony against Kennard. (he later recanted) The actual thief returned to his job at the Cooperative while Kennard was sent to Parchman Penitentiary, a high security prison, and forced to work on the prison’s "sun up to sun down gang" cotton plantation - the worst of the worst in Mississippi.

Even with Medgar Evers, the NAACP, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Dick Gregory and others working tirelessly to get Kennard released; a diagnosis of terminal colon cancer; and the prison doctor's request to the governor for leniency and commutation of Kennard's sentence in order to send Kennard home, (all ignored by Governor Ross Barnett) Kennard was forced back into the fields, even if he had to be carried, in order to "make an example" of him.

The story began to leak out; the press published articles and editorials about Clyde Kennard's plight; protests and actions took place demanding Kennard's release, and in February, 1963, Clyde was finally released to go home.

Too weak to work on the farm; too sick (from neglect, cancer and TB) to even think about college, but  Clyde Kennard refused to openly attack his enslavers.

On July 4, 1963, Clyde Kennard died...a class act until the end; a martyr for the cause; and a hero to the people.

A few days before his death, he wrote, “Ode to the Death Angel” :

Oh here you come again
Old chilly death of Ol'
To plot out life
And test immortal soul

I saw you fall against the raging sea
I cheated you then and now you'll not catch me…

I know your face
It's known in every race
Your speed is fast
And along the way
Your shadow you cast

High in the sky
You thought you had me then
I landed safely
But here you are again

I see you paused upon that forward pew
When you think I'm asleep
I'm watching you
Why must you hound me so everywhere I go?

It's true my eyes are dim
My hands are growing cold
Well take me on then, that
I might at last become my soul

On December 31, 2005, Investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell published an interview with the "witness" to Kennard's crime, now recanting his testimony and clearing Kennard's name.

On May 16, 2006, Clyde Kennard was exonerated in the Circuit Court of Forrest County, Mississippi.

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