— Mississippi Freedom Trail —
Forrest County native Clyde Kennard was a pioneer in the quest to desegregate higher education in Mississippi. His efforts to enroll at Mississippi Southern College (now USM) in 1955-1959 were obstructed by college president William D. McCain and state officials. He nonetheless persisted until he was falsely accused and convicted of minor crimes and was sent to Parchman Prison for seven years. While there he developed cancer but was denied proper medical treatment until he was critically ill. Tragically, he died on July 4, 1963, at age thirty-six.
Born in Hattiesburg June 12, 1927, Kennard moved to Chicago when he was twelve to live with an older sister and attend school. At eighteen, he joined the U.S. Army and served with distinction for seven years as a paratrooper, earning the rank of sergeant. Using army savings, he made a down payment on a twenty-acre farm near Eatonville for his mother and stepfather. He then enrolled at the University of Chicago and was in his senior year when his stepfather died and Kennard returned to Mississippi to run the family farm. He wanted to complete his college
Beginning in 1955, Kennard was refused admission to the all-white Mississippi Southern College in Hattiesburg. State Sovereignty Commission investigators, led by former FBI agent Zack J. VanLandingham, sought derogatory information about Kennard to sabotage future applications but found none. His strategy to obstruct Kennard's application included false shows of friendship by college president William D. McCain and Governor J.P. Coleman and visits by local black professionals in efforts to dissuade Kennard of his plans.
On September 15, 1959, Kennard was on campus to register. After McCain again denied him entrance, Kennard returned to his car 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 Kennard, a devout Baptist, never drank alcohol. Local judge T.C. Hobby found Kennard guilty of both charges.
On September 25, 1960, the Forrest County Cooperative - which had already foreclosed on Kennard's poultry farm and confiscated his stock - was burglarized. A young employee, Johnny Lee Roberts, stole five bags of chicken feed, claiming that Kennard had planned the break-in. Kennard was arrested and charged with accessory to burglary, a felony under Mississippi law. Kennard received the maximum penalty
At Parchman Farm (Mississippi State Penitentiary) Kennard worked all day in cotton fields. In early 1962 he became ill and was diagnosed with cancer and underwent surgery at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. Hospital staff advised parole due to his poor prognosis. Instead Kennard was returned to the cotton fields, with a medical checkup canceled.
The NAACP mobilized, and national figures including Martin Luther King and Dick Gregory demanded his release. Finally, under pressure of bad publicity should Kennard die at Parchman, Governor Ross Barnett ordered his release in the spring of 1963. Kennard underwent surgery in Chicago, but it was too late. He died July 4, 1963, and was buried in the cemetery of the Forrest County church where he had taught Sunday School and directed the choir. Subsequent investigations showed that Kennard had been framed, and on May 17, 2006, the Forrest County Circuit Court filed the papers that exonerated him.
Clyde Kennard entered the Army in 1945 and served with distinction for seven years as a paratrooper, including assignments in Gemany and Korea.
“I had spent thirty months in Europe – why should I go overseas and protect my country, try to fight for my country, and then come back and be a second-class citizen?”
Pressured by both Coleman and McCain, Kennard agreed to withdraw his application. Some friends report that Kennard was promised a place at the colleage if he delayed his application.
A letter from the NAACP general counsel to Medgar Evers and multiple articles in JET magazine show the widespread coverage the Kennard case received.
White economic entities also exerted pressure: the Southern Farm Bureau Insurance Company cancelled its liability coverage on Kennard’s car, and the Forrest County Cooperative foreclosed on Kennard’s poulty farm.
Kennard is greeted by his sister Sarah Tarpley at O’Hare Airport on February 2, 1963, after his arrival from Mississippi. He was taken to a hospital, where he began treatment for intestinal cancer.
Although he lost forty pounds while in prison, his captors accused him of feigning illness to avoid work. Guards even instructed other prisoners to carry Kennard into the fields and return him to his cell when he collapsed.
In September 1991 the Jackson Clarion-Ledger published secret Sovereignty Commission documents that showed Kennard had been framed, leading to public calls to repone the case. In 2006 reporter Jerry Mitchell investigated the Kennard case, and Johnny Lee Roberts, at age sixty-five, admitted his part in the fake chicken feed theft.
After receiving a petition signed by those including students and a former federal judge seeking a pardon for Kennard, Governor Haley Barbour declared March 30, 2006 “Clyde Kennard Day,” an event covered nationally that brought hundreds of pleas before Forrest County Circuit Judge Robert Helfrich, who finally declared Kennard innocent.
This is marker No. 27 on the Mississippi Freedom Trail, dedicated February 2, 2018.
Erected 2018 by the Mississippi Development Authority Tourism Division. (Marker Number 27.)
Topics and series. This historical marker is listed in these topic lists: African Americans • Civil Rights. In addition, it is included in the Mississippi Freedom Trail series list.
Location. 31° 19.65′ N, 89° 19.911′ W. Marker is in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, in Forrest County. Marker can be reached from East Memorial drive south of Smalling Drive, on the right when traveling north. Touch for map. Marker is in this post office area: Hattiesburg MS 39406, United States of America. Touch for directions.
Other nearby markers. At least 8 other markers are within 3 miles of this marker, measured as the crow flies. The Hub Where Buffett Met "Fingers" (about 300 feet away, measured in a direct line); Roberts Schoolhouse (approx. 0.2 miles away); Demonstration School (approx. 0.2 miles away); Hub City Lodge No 627 (approx. half a mile away); Veterans of All Wars Monument (approx. 2 miles away); Old Hattiesburg High School (approx. 2.2 miles away); St. Paul Methodist Church (approx. 2.2 miles away); McLeod House (approx. 2.3 miles away). Touch for a list and map of all markers in Hattiesburg.
More about this marker. Located on the University of Southern Mississippi campus, in front of the Kennard Washington Hall.
Credits. This page was last revised on April 24, 2021. It was originally submitted on June 15, 2018, by Cajun Scrambler of Assumption, Louisiana. This page has been viewed 358 times since then and 45 times this year. Photos: 1, 2, 3. submitted on June 15, 2018.