Clyde Kennard: Killed For Seeking The American Dream
Clyde Kennard died on 4 July, 1963.
Part of the soul of America died along with him.
Clyde Kennard is one of the most admirable men America ever produced.
And then it killed him.
Born in Mississippi, Clyde Kennard was sent to Chicago at a young age to get a better education. In addition to possessing a sterling character, Kennard’s defining characteristic was his intelligence. Everyone who met him recognized, almost immediately, that this soft-spoken, religious and modest man was brilliant.
After high school, he did what many patriotic Americans did: he enlisted in the Army, at the tail end of World War II. For 10 years Clyde Kennard served his country, eventually winning four combat medals in Korea.
He came back to America with a first-class mind, medals on his chest, an honorable discharge, an unimpeachable character and the G.I. Bill. He then decided to pursue the American dream and attend college.
Clyde Kennard’s American Dream turned into
an unspeakable American nightmare.
After three successful years studying at the prestigious University of Chicago, Clyde Kennard’s sense of duty took precedence over his personal ambition. When his stepfather died in Mississippi, Clyde Kennard, ever the man of responsibility, moved home Mississippi to take care of his aging mother on her farm. Rather than abandoning his dream of an education, Kennard applied to the University of Southern Mississippi, asking for the chance to finish what would be his senior year. He had all the academic requirements and credentials and his admission should have been pro forma. There was just one catch. And it was a big catch.
Clyde Kennard was African-American. And the University of Southern Mississippi was strictly segregated.
No black students need apply.
Clyde Kennard believed in logic, in fairness, and in decency. He wrote to the President of the University, explaining his situation and asked politely for admission. In 1958, his first attempt at enrolling in Mississippi Southern (as it was then known) was denied because his application was deemed “incomplete.” It was later discovered that his application folder was not with the other applicant’s’ folders. The school was viewing it as a “special case.” The school can’t account for the missing folder. This began a three-year battle in which the state of Mississippi rallied its official forces to do everything possible to keep an African-American man from pursuing the American dream.
When all of their legal and subversive efforts failed, the state of Mississippi tried an evil, horrific strategy. They framed Clyde Kennard – a man they recognized as having impeccable integrity – for a crime he never committed.
After a failed attempt to convict the teetotaler on alcohol related charges, the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission upped their game. They bribed and coerced a mentally challenged young man to falsely claim that Clyde Kennard had asked him to steal $18 worth of chicken feed. On this flimsy use of “evidence” Clyde Kennard was arrested, charged, convicted, and sentenced to prison. He was factually innocent.
Years later, my high school students and I were part of a team comprised of reporter Jerry Mitchell, attorney Steven Drizin, Civil Rights heroines Col. Raylawni Branch and Dr. Joyce Ladner, former Justice Charles Pickering, who gathered irrefutable proof of Kennard’s complete innocence and Mississippi’s monstrous crime.
The fact remains, Clyde Kennard was sent to prison to keep him from integrating the University of Southern Mississippi.
Medgar Evers was sent to jail for calling the conviction of Clyde Kennard a “mockery of justice.” Thurgood Marshall considered his failure to save Clyde Kennard one of the greatest failures of his career. And so, Clyde Kennard, the scholar, poet, soldier, Sunday school teacher was sentenced to pick cotton under the broiling the Mississippi sun for 7 1/2 years at Parchman State Prison, all for being accused of receiving stolen chicken feed.
His real crime was being African-American and trying to go to college.
In prison, Clyde developed cancer which went untreated as he wasted away, deprived of food and water by an inhumane warden. By the time Kennard was allowed to get outside medical help, it was too late. On his deathbed, Clyde Kennard worried about the souls of those who had killed him.
The death of Clyde Kennard went largely unnoticed. Medgar Evers had been murdered a month earlier in the tumultuous year of 1963; The Birmingham church bombings, George Wallace’s blocking the doors of the University of Alabama, and the assassination of John F. Kennedy in November far overshadowed this obscure, but deeply poignant death of a martyr.
My father came back from World War II and used the G.I. Bill pursue the American dream: rising from modest circumstances, going to college, owning a home, starting a family. My father succeeded and lived a long, happy, and productive life. Clyde Kennard was killed for trying to do the exact same thing. His story should never be forgotten.
Author’s note: I worked with an amazing team to help clear Clyde Kennard’s name.