Saturday, May 22, 2010

Graduation Day: Remembering Clyde Kennard

To the Class of 2010, I’m so proud of all of you:

Thank you Calvin for reminding me that it’s that time of year where family graduations abound. It’s hard to believe that at one time “Separate but Equal” was the law of the land. Brown vs. the Board of Education changed all that—sort of. Unfortunately, that “With All Deliberate Speed” clause was just the loop-hole many states needed to continue de jure segregation. Many of us know about James Meredith’s desegregation of the University of Mississippi, (in Oxford) and Richard Holmes’s desegregation of Mississippi State University (in Starkville), but what do you know about Clyde Kennard?

In 1956, 1957, and 1959, Mr. Kennard, a U.S. paratrooper who once served in Germany and Korea and would-be transfer student from the University of Chicago, sought admittance to Mississippi Southern College (now the University of Southern Mississippi). Mississippi Governor James P. Coleman offered Mr. Kennard a quid pro quo: in exchange for paid college tuition, Coleman required him to gain acceptance elsewhere in the state. Proximity to his family’s farm was the deciding factor and Mr. Kennard declined the governor's offer. When further talks still would not dissuade Mr. Kennard, the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission sought a lasting solution.

On September 15, 1959, Mr. Kennard was falsely arrested and later convicted of charges of reckless driving. On September 25, 1960, he was rearrested on more false charges: this time, theft. Less than two months later, he was convicted by an all-white jury and sentenced to seven years in Parchman Penitentiary. In 1961, he was diagnosed with colon cancer. Despite medical recommendations, the prison warden did nothing. By January 1963, Mr. Kennard’s “murder” was imminent and Governor Ross Barnett suspended his sentence indefinitely.

Graduates--with your diplomas in hand, I ask you to remember those who paved the way for you. Remember those despite their best efforts weren't allowed to go the school. Remember those who went to segregated schools. Remember those whose families couldn't afford to send them to school. Most of all, remember those who weren't even given the option to go school.

NB: Upon his release, Mr. Kennard relocated to Chicago. Despite surgeries at the University of Chicago’s Billings Hospital, he would die on July 4, 1963 at the age of 36 years of age.

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