The Tragic Civil Rights Hero Clyde Kennard

On September 25, 1960, Clyde Kennard was arrested in Mississippi and charged with stealing $25 worth of chicken feed. An all-white jury then convicted the black man of the crime, and he was sentenced to seven years of hard labor at the Mississippi State Penitentiary, otherwise known as “Parchman Farm.” Kennard eventually would be released from prison after he was diagnosed with cancer and was near death, and he died on July 4, 1963. What makes the story especially tragic, though, is that Kennard had been framed with the theft only because he had tried to go to a white college.

Kennard Sought an Education
Kennard with his sister after being paroled in 1963

Clyde Kennard had been born in 1927 in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.  After serving for seven years in the military, he completed three years of college at the University of Chicago.

After three years into his political science major, though, his father died.  So, Kennard returned home to Mississippi to help his mother run the family farm.

Back in Mississippi, Kennard wanted to complete his degree but he needed to go to a school near to the farm so he could help his mother. The only nearby college was the the all-white, Mississippi Southern College.  And state officials did not want a black man challenging the status quo.  Officials realized they might lose any challenge due to the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education.

Applications to Mississippi Southern College

Kennard first applied to Mississippi Southern College in 1955.  But he was rejected on technical grounds because he did not have letters of support from prior graduates.

Kennard applied to the school again in 1958.  This second time he withdrew his application after civil rights leaders persuaded him to withdraw.  They had concluded it was not the right time to try to integrate the school.

Then, Kennard tried again to apply to the school in September 1959. The school president again rejected him on a technicality.

Kennard’s Arrests and Prosecution

After this attempt to get admitted to Mississippi Southern College, as Kennard was leaving a meeting at the school, he was arrested.  The alleged charges were speeding and possessing alcohol, even though he did not drink.

Kennard did not give up.  He wrote letters to a newspaper, stating that he would go to federal court if necessary to get in the school. Then, in September 1960 he was framed for a chicken-feed theft and sent to prison.  At the prison, he endured horrible treatment and had to work in the fields picking cotton.

Cancer Diagnosis and Death

When Kennard was diagnosed with cancer, state officials first refused to release him from prison. But pressure from civil rights leaders like Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King Jr. led state officials to fear having a martyr die in their prison system.

So in February 1963, officials released the very sick Kennard.  He died died several months later on July 4, 1963.

Kennard’s Innocence

Decades later, a reporter would get the “witness” to the chicken-feed theft to recant the story.  The “witness” explained that the charges had to do with Kennard’s attempts to go to school.

Newly discovered documents support Kennard’s innocence too.  And in 2006 the Circuit Court of Forrest County, Mississippi exonerated Kennard. Thus, it became clear what everyone knew at the time: Kennard had committed no crime. He was just a man who wanted to go to school.

“We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder”

The tragic story of Clyde Kennard reminds me of one of the great African-American spirituals, “We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder.” Like many spirituals, the song connects the struggles of American slaves to the plight of the Jewish people in ancient Egypt.  “Jacob’s Ladder” uses the Biblical image of the ladder climbing to heaven that Jacob dreamed about.

One of my favorite versions of the song is by Bernice Johnson Reagon, who founded the wonderful a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock in 1973 before retiring from the group in 2004. You may recognize this version of “Jacob’s Ladder” from Ken Burns’s series The Civil War.

Clyde Kennard knew it is a long ladder that he helped climb. In response to the song’s question, “Children do you want your freedom?,” Kennard responded with a resounding “yes.” And for that and for his sacrifice, we should remember him.

In one of the final newspaper letters Kennard wrote before he was sentenced to prison, he wrote, ““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.”

Every rung goes higher, higher;
Every rung goes higher, higher;
Every rung goes higher, higher;
Soldiers of the cross.

Photo via public domain. Leave your two cents in the comments.

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