Clyde Kennard Speech

The following speech was written and delivered by Montclair State University professor Ron Hollander '63 at a conference at Mississippi Southern University, Hattiesburg, Miss., on October 23, 2010. Hollander paid tribute to Clyde Kennard, an African American who was wrongfully convicted on trumped up charges and imprisoned in 1960 in Parchman State Penitentiary because he sought admission to the then-segregated university. Hollander broke Kennard's story nationally and Kennard was freed as a result of Hollander's reporting.

Clyde Kennard ... Clyde Kennard. 

Those three syllables have been a mantra through my life … though unlike some fortunate of you here, I never had the honor of meeting him. 

    It was the summer of ’62 … 48 years ago!! 

    I was a kid reporter at the Mississippi Free Press in Jackson, just a few blocks from Lynch Street and Medgar’s office. You can see the front page of the paper enlarged here with the story on Clyde’s being denied medical care at Parchman State Penitentiary.  He was doing seven years on trumped-up charges of supposedly helping to steal $25 worth of chicken feed — of course after he applied to this university.

    We put out the paper in the back of the Rev. R.L.T. Smith’s supermarket in Jackson. The office — if you could really call a grocery storeroom a newspaper office — was right beside a railroad siding. A huge, Purina Chow tower loomed above us, and we worked in the sickly, rich smell of the pet food, the only newspaper in Jackson reporting on the twin virtues of civil rights and labor organizing.

    On the siding, the covered hoppers would smash and crash, coupling outside the screen door. We do-gooders (or Commies, Jews, race agitators, depending on whom you were talking to) banged away on our upright, Underwood typewriters, determined to save the world.

    We could hear the electric buzz of the crickets, smell the honey suckle in the sweet — terrifying — Mississippi night.

    But I’m getting ahead of myself.

    As some of you may have guessed if you have a sharp ear for accents, I’m not from here. In fact I’m from Yankeeland. Brooklyn, New York, to be exact.

    So how the journey here?  How from Coney Island to Mobile Street?

    To begin with, like many Northerners, I did not grow up in an integrated society.  You all know that segregation in the North can be as destructive as in the South because it’s so much more hidden.

    Before I hitch-hiked (yes, it was a different time) down to Jackson in July of 1962 — having dropped out of Brandeis University because, in Willy Loman’s words, “the woods were burning” and the world was calling — there were two black people in my life.

    One was the porter — not even the superintendent — of our Brooklyn apartment building. His name was Sam — just “Sam” — no last name — and he mopped the floors and brought out the garbage cans. He had an apartment in the basement next to the washing machines, where the baby carriages and tricycles were stored. I can’t remember his ever using the front door of our building.

    The other was “Laura,” a black lady who cleaned our house on Thursdays, after we had moved to the suburbs. When my parents were out, she heated frozen Swanson chicken potpies for us. We were told always to address our neighbors as “Mr.” and “Mrs.” But — again — she was just “Laura.”   

That was pretty much the extent of my multi-racial life before Mississippi, because it was ironically Mississippi that gave me the gift of integration. I went off to Brandeis and met Bill Higgs, a white, Jackson, civil rights lawyer who was spending a semester there. Bill was looking for some law students to return south with him, and because I wanted to be a journalist and I wanted to save the world, I volunteered to work on the Free Press.

    What a time that was! We did everything. We went out and interviewed people; then we typed-up the stories; then we laid out the issues; then we drove them at night to Hazel Brannon Smith, the indomitable publisher of the Lexington Advertiser who printed them for us. (It was driving to Hazel’s in the Mississippi night that I first really saw the Milky Way.) Then we picked up the papers, and actually peddled them on the streets of Jackson.

    This is what Mississippi was like in those days: 

  • Blacks and whites did not sit together, not even on the same car seat.  When we rode, our friend, SNCC worker Dewey Green, drove as if he were the chauffeur, and we whities sat in the back as if we were rich.
  • We were scared if we had to drive past the Governor’s mansion in downtown Jackson, and we slouched down in the back of the car, as if they knew that we hated them, and they would carry us off then-and-there to Parchman.
  • We feared Senator “Big Jim” Eastland. And in his home county, there was a saying, “N---, don’t let the sun set on you in Sunflower County.”

    And here’s an almost funny story about how the whites saw us before the battle-lines were drawn in 1964, and Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman were executed by cowards, some of whom are still walking around free today, and laughing in their old-man’s drool: We were selling the Free Press at an intersection in Jackson when this pink Cadillac pulls up. A big, scary guy calls out that he wants a paper, and we should bring it to him.  My friend puts the paper down on the grass on the traffic divider, and backs away.  Mr. Muscles lurches out of the car — leaving his wife sitting there, and the engine running — and starts coming for my friend. He’s wearing bedroom scuffs, but that doesn’t stop him.

    But, hey, my friend’s 20, and he runs cross-country at Oberlin, so he just skips off, putting down another paper. Mr. Muscles keeps coming. My friend retreats, laying down papers as he goes. Mr. Muscles ignores them. He wants my friend, not the Free Press.

    They go on this way for blocks and blocks, through the heat of mid-day Jackson.  People are watching this strange ballet from their porches. There’s a trail of papers. Mr. Muscles is getting redder and redder. His feet are sore in his scuffs. He’s panting. My friend keeps dancing out of reach.

    Finally, the cops arrive. Muscles can hardly speak, but this is what he’s able to blurt out to the cops in his paranoia and actual fear, the only way he can figure out what’s happening to his way of life: “I want you to arrest this man,” he says, panting. “He’s a member of the Russian Track Team!”

    And you know, the guy later came to the house where we all were living. He was terrified. Really felt like he was taking his life into his hands. Later I realized it was like he thought we had one of those chairs like in “Sweeney Todd,” and we would push a lever, and it would tip over, and he’d go down this chute, and come out at the Kremlin or in Red Square. He told us we could do anything we wanted to him, but he just wanted to take us around and show us that their schools were just as good as ours.

    And into this came Clyde Kennard.

    I was going around with some SNCC and NAACP workers, trying to persuade people to register to vote, though they knew they’d only have to face voter registrar Theron Lynd who would ask them relevant questions like, “How many bubbles are there in a bar of soap?” I remember it was a Saturday, and we were out in the countryside. We were on the creaky, rough-boarded porch of someone’s house. I can still see the grey, unpainted pine.

    Out comes this guy, and he says his name is Bob Moses (aptly named, right?), and he hands me five, flimsy sheets of what we used to call second-copy paper that you’d make carbon-copies on when you typed. The first sheet is headed “Bob Moses, Field Secretary.” And under that — in all caps and spaced out so you wouldn’t miss it — it says, “Did Mississippi Trap Kennard?” And that’s the first time I heard the name that we honor here today.

    Here are copies of what Bob gave me on that July Saturday 48 years ago. I had never heard of him, and he sure as shooting hadn’t heard of me. Heck, for all he knew, I was just one more Northern do-gooder, slumming from my fancy university, down to have some adventures, maybe just another white guy just passing through. But he must have figured it was worth a shot. What did he have to lose but some copies in those pre-Xerox days that he’d just keep typing out, three carbons at a time, in his one-man petition drive to free Clyde. 

    I never saw Bob again, never talked.  But wherever he is, if he’s still running his algebra project, I want to say to him, “Bob, I kept the faith!”

    And so began my efforts to free Clyde. Bob’s sheets — I wonder how many of them he’d already typed out and sent around — outlined most of the facts of the case that you’re already familiar with from my article in your conference packets. In his introduction, Bob wrote about Clyde’s applying to Mississippi Southern, and added, “Needless to say, the bastards were out to get him.” Here’s what he outlined:

    *  That Clyde had spent three years at the University of Chicago, and wanted to finish his college;

    * That he needed to stay here to help his widowed mother run their farm;

    *  That first the state tried to frame him on boot-legging charges — planting five bottles of liquor in his car — though Clyde was a devout, tee-totaling Baptist who didn’t even drink soda;

    *  That he was set-up by the president of this university — whose name is all over the campus in places of honor, despite there also being two plagiarism charges against him — because Clyde was arrested the very moment he left William D. McCain’s office, where the State Sovereignty Commission was also waiting;

    *  When those charges didn’t stop him, they framed him again, and got an illiterate, 19-year-old black man to claim that Clyde had put him up to stealing $25-worth of chicken feed for him from the Hattiesburg Co-op;

    *  An all-white jury found him guilty in 10 minutes, and the judge — who had led a state senate investigation into the NAACP — sentenced him to seven years hard labor at Parchman;

    (If you’re trying to do the math on your fingers, I’ll help you:  That’s one year for each $3.57 allegedly stolen);

    *  The man, Johnny Lee Roberts, who had actually stolen the chicken feed and who testified against Clyde, got a suspended sentence.

    After all that, Mississippi Southern would be integrated in five years, anyway, by young women sitting here. But by then, Clyde would be long dead at 36 of cancer that went willfully untreated at Parchman.

    With Bob Moses’ sheets, I went to Medgar — what we always did when we needed advice. I can still see him sitting behind his desk. He had the trim tautness of a shortstop, his shirt tight and pressed by Myrlie. He had a precise crew cut, and sat as straight as a colonel. Medgar said Clyde was like a brother to him. When Clyde had been sentenced to seven years, Myrlie said Medgar — always so cool — was so angry he put his fist though the wall of the house in whose driveway he would be assassinated three years later.

    Medgar sent me to Clyde’s attorney, R. Jess Brown, one of only two black attorneys in the state. Jess shared his files, and directed me to the Jackson Public Library where I went through the microfilms of the defunct Jackson Times, which really had covered the cases fairly, and even had transcripts.

    I came down here to Hattiesburg. Boy, Mobile Street was rocking in those days! I found Johnny Lee Roberts at the feed Co-op. He was terrified. Here was not only a white man questioning him — I was so stupid, I did it out in public where everyone could see—but one with a weird accent. Oh, I tried everything;  talked about justice. Equality.  Telling the truth. Even compared Kennedy to Nixon … I wasn’t sure Johnny Lee had heard of either one. 

    Nothing worked, but why should it have? I was a kid, and a Yankee, offering some abstraction about the American way. And on the other side he was being watched by the Klan, and had a wife and kids to feed.

    I drove out to the country and hunkered down with Vernon Dahmer in his farmyard.  He had on a straw hat against the sun. I didn’t know enough to do that. Vernon ran the NAACP here. He told me how Clyde had been framed, set-up by Mississippi Southern.  “There was just no way he was going to get in,” he told me. “We told him, but he thought differently.” Four years later, Vernon would die defending his house from a Klan fire-bombing. 

    That was really the wonder of Clyde — he thought differently. He believed that he could reach the good in people, appeal to their own best selves. 

    Clyde was just a sucker for reasonableness. Maybe because he was so smart, and could think and reason so well, he thought he could carry the day. Who could refute his logic … and who could turn away from his trusting heart?

    Even after he was framed for the boot-legging … even after Governor J. P. Coleman had said if he withdrew his application, the state would pay for his education at any other college in the country … even after talking with McCain for three years (McCain told me he always found Clyde “courteous at all times”) … even after his credit had been cut off in town to pressure him … still, Clyde thought he’d get in.

    In January 1960, eight months before he was set-up over the chicken feed, Clyde wrote a three-page, single-spaced letter to the Hattiesburg American. I think you should hear Clyde’s own words, hear the intelligence, the terrific mind at work, and understand what was lost.

    Here is part of what he wrote explaining the inter-connectedness between an education and serving society, and I’m quoting his letter:

    “The end product of an education is a greater and more useful participation in the art of living in a civilized society. If an education does not help make out of people more useful citizens to themselves and their community, then it has failed.

    “Conversely, if the community fails to provide those whom it educates an opportunity to serve it to the fullest extent, then the community is guilty of self-impoverishment or self-destruction.

    “I have not been able to discern a noticeable difference, other than color, between a good white man and a good black or yellow man.”

    I wrote the story as a seven-part series in the Free Press. Nothing happened. Clyde remained in Parchman. Medgar had future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall appeal the case for the NAACP. Clyde remained in Parchman, worked as if he weren’t dying. I left Mississippi and wrote the story for The Reporter magazine you have before you. Things started to move. In January 1963, Governor Ross Barnett — under pressure from Robert Kennedy’s Justice Department — freed Clyde as if he were doing a big, noble thing. He died six months later on the Fourth of July — Independence Day.

    Why do we remember Clyde today? Dedicate this conference to him? What can we take from his death …but even more, from his life?

    Like Billy Budd in Herman Melville’s novella of the same name, Clyde never expressed bitterness, never stooped to the hatred that crushed his body. On the day he was released, Victoria Gray of the NAACP said “There was not a trace of anger or revenge or anything whatsoever. It was just like, ‘Lord, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’”

    On his deathbed, Clyde said “Be sure to tell them what happened to me isn’t as bad as what happened to the guard, because this system turned him into a beast, and it will turn his children into beasts.”

    That there was no simple crime with one indictable perpetrator makes it all the more universal. 

    His body was murdered. Strangely — if you’ll permit me — that was the least of the killing. For it was his heart, his trust, his belief that was murdered. 

    Clyde’s death was also the death — for a time — of Mississippi’s better self … and the better self of all of us. It betrayed what could-have-been. Southern’s President McCain chose to be crippled by history. 

    “Why I’ve got 270 years behind my feelings,” he told me sitting in his presidential office. He said he could do more for society there than he could in “a silly martyrdom for one Negro”.

    “Silly martyrdom!?” “Silly?”

    Was Clyde, then, “silly”? Medgar? Martin? Malcolm?

    Is that not what a university stands for? Is it not a center of the “best and the brightest”? If not here, where? Because the true perpetrators in this story are not some ignorant, untutored folk. They are the cream of society, the most respected and educated, principally a former general who became a university president, and administrators of what should have been the citadel of moral courage, a university.

    The indictment is far broader than of mere sadists who grabbed a 14-year-old black boy from his bed because he may have made adolescent eyes at a white woman.  The crime here is that Clyde believed in a system and society, that not only did not believe in him in return, but that crucified and discarded him in the name of a perverted status quo.

    Clyde was murdered — and Mississippi Southern conspired in and abetted that murder — as surely as if he had been lynched from the infamous hanging tree that once stood on Hardy Street in front of the campus. 

I don’t want to appear to be a rude guest here, but naming only half a building after him … or putting up a commemorative plaque whose total explanation of why the building bears his name is that he was “denied admission”— as if his GPA were too low, or maybe he didn’t have enough Spanish credits — with no apology for the university’s role … does not expiate the sin.

So he was murdered, but he did not die alone. Something of what was good and treasured in society went with him, and we sit here today in hopes of resurrecting that.  We have not given up … and that is to our, and Mississippi Southern’s, credit.

    The salvation is not Clyde’s. The salvation is Mississippi Southern’s. The salvation is Mississippi’s. The salvation is ours — all of ours— whether from Hattiesburg or Brooklyn.

    Because there will always be Clydes. There will always be moral crises in which he will lead the way. The challenge — the test— for us, is whether we can follow.

    So let us resolve …

    … not merely that Clyde … and Vernon … and Medgar … and Martin … and, and, and — is there no end to the list? — did not die in vain. That’s easy.

    Let us resolve to keep faith with Clyde, and with what he epitomized:



        Belief — however naïve (and the more naïve, the more trusting … the more touching) — belief in our best selves.

For the great tragedy of Clyde Kennard was that he believed. Against all proof to the contrary — against an indisputable record of state-sponsored racism, of which the denial of the vote was only the merest indiginity — he believed. A former paratrooper in two theatres of war — he taught de-Nazification in Germany, so he fought against prejudice there, too — he believed in the country for which he fought. For him, the pledge of allegiance was not something merely to delay the start of a baseball game. 

Almost child-like, with a naivete that belied his three years of college and the books stacked in his Hattiesburg farm house, he clung to the belief that, as he said, “these people at MSC are more liberal. They’re not like the old ones. I’ll get in without the courts.”

    On the very day Clyde was released from Parchman, he said, “I still think there are a few white people of good will in the state, and we have to do something to bring this out.”

    In that he echoed an earlier and younger martyr to prejudice and hatred, Anne Frank. Hidden away in an Amsterdam attic, with — like Clyde — the specters of hatred all around her, she still was able to write, “In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.”

    Let us prove Anne — and Clyde — right.

    “Keep hope alive!”   

    Thank you … and thank you, Clyde.