“Can We Achieve This Togetherness In Our Time” is the first lecture series to analyze critical perspectives of the infamous Clyde Kennard case and its relationship to racial progress at the University of Southern Mississippi.
The series will be held at the historic Eureka School in Hattiesburg March 23, March 30 and April 6. Each lecture will begin at 6 p.m. and is free and open to the public.
Kennard, native of Hattiesburg, moved to Chicago at an early age. After high school, he entered the U.S. Army and served for seven years, including duty in the Korean War. After the war, he returned to Chicago and completed three years of study at the University of Chicago. In 1955, Kennard returned to Hattiesburg to help care for his mother and run the family farm. Kennard wanted to complete his college education, so he sought to enroll at the all-white Mississippi Southern College, now the University of Southern Mississippi.
Although Kennard was denied three times and never was admitted to the college, an interdisciplinary group of USM professors believe Kennard was a catalyst for desegregation of the school. In September 1965, Raylawni Branch and Elaine Armstrong were the first African-American students admitted to the university.
“It’s important for (USM) students to know their history,” said Dr. Loren Saxton Coleman, assistant professor in the USM School of Mass Communication and Journalism.
On Dec. 6, 1958, the Hattiesburg American newspaper published a letter from Kennard in which he stated he was a “segregationist by nature” but “integrationist by choice.” In the March 23 session of the series, Dr. Sherita Johnson, associate professor of English and director of the university’s Center for Black Studies, will examine Kennard’s letters to the college making the argument for racial progress, specifically desegregation.
On March 30, Coleman and Dr. Cheryl Jenkins, associate professor in the USM School of Mass Communication and Journalism and associate director of the university’s Center for Black Studies, will examine the way student newspapers The Student Printz and The Unheard Word covered his attempts to enroll. This session will feature Dr. Riva Brown, assistant professor of public relations at the University of Central Arkansas, the first black editor of the Student Printz and founder of The Unheard Word, a newspaper that discussed the state of race relations at the university in the early 1990s.
The final lecture on April 6 will feature Dr. Rebecca Tuuri, assistant professor of history at USM, discussing the evolution of black student activism on campus.
The Kennard story had an unfortunate end. In 1959, he was arrested and charged with accessory to burglary in the theft of five bags of chicken feed worth $25, a felony under Mississippi law. Upon conviction, he was sentenced to seven years in Parchment Penitentiary, after which he became terminally ill with cancer. He was released in 1963 and months later died in Chicago after a number of surgeries and treatments.
In 2005, after The Clarion-Ledger published secret Sovereignty Commission documents that showed Kennard had been framed, supporters tried to secure a posthumous pardon for him. According to the Mississippi Historical Society, then Gov. Haley Barbour said that although he believed Kennard was innocent, he could not act on the petition because Mississippi law had no provision for pardoning the dead.
“For young people now, it’s important to understand that the decisions that they make should work to create a more inclusive and diverse space for all,” said Coleman. “It takes sacrifice, courage and bravery. To look beyond self is very important and Kennard was an exemplar.”
This project was made possible by the Racial Equity $2,000 mini-grant from the Mississippi Humanities Council. Other partners include, the College of Arts and Letters at The University of Southern Mississippi, Mississippi Humanities Council, Historic Eureka School and Freedom50 Research Group.