JULY 4, 1963

Clyde Kennard — railroaded in 1960 because he dared to try and enroll at an all-white college in Mississippi — died of cancer just months after being freed from prison. He died on the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, which promised “all men are created equal.” 

After World War II ended, Kennard taught denazification classes to German students. Years later, he served as a paratrooper in the Korean War. Afterward, he attended the University of Chicago, where he worked on a political science degree, only to have to return home to help his mother after his stepfather died. 

He started a chicken farm to help her make ends meet and tried to finish his degree by applying to attend the nearby college, now known as the University of Southern Mississippi. 

The State Sovereignty Commission, headed by the governor, used Black leaders to try and dissuade Kennard from enrolling at the all-white college. When that failed, there was a plot to plant a bomb in the Mercury car he drove. 

On Dec. 6, 1958, he wrote a letter to the editor of the Hattiesburg American, questioning the logic of the “separate but equal” approach: “After our paralleled graduate schools, where do our parallels of separate but equal go? Are we to assume that paralleled hospitals are to be built for the two groups of doctors? Are we to build two bridges across the same stream in order to give equal opportunities to both groups of engineers? Are we to have two courts of law so as to give both groups of lawyers the same chance to demonstrate their skills; two legislatures for our politically inclined, and of course two governors?” 

Months later, when he attempted to enroll at the college, constables claimed they found whiskey under the seat of his car, despite the fact he was a teetotaler. When he continued his fight to attend, he was arrested on charges, this time for reportedly stealing chicken feed. 

Kennard went to Parchman prison, where he was forced to pick cotton from daylight to dark. In 1961, he was diagnosed with colon cancer, but wasn’t released from prison until two years later, just months before he died. 

In 2005, the man who testified against Kennard admitted that Kennard had done nothing illegal. A year later, a judge tossed out Kennard’s conviction, clearing his name for good. A new book by Devery Anderson details Kennard’s life and what Anderson calls a “slow, calculated lynching.”

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The stories of investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell have helped put four Klansmen and a serial killer behind bars. His stories have also helped free two people from death row, exposed injustices and corruption, prompting investigations and reforms as well as the firings of boards and officials. He is a Pulitzer Prize finalist, a longtime member of Investigative Reporters & Editors, and a winner of more than 30 other national awards, including a $500,000 MacArthur “genius” grant. After working for three decades for the statewide Clarion-Ledger, Mitchell left in 2019 and founded the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting.