Localism and Justice: A Review of The Story of Clyde Kennard


A Slow, Calculated Lynching: The Story of Clyde Kennard recounts the black veteran Clyde Kennard’s attempt to integrate Mississippi Southern College (shortly before the James Meredith conflict). The state of Mississippi retaliated against Kennard by framing him and putting him in prison, and he died a few years later. The Jim Crow government manifested all the signs of an oppressive centralized state, yet cases like this are what some people think about when they hear celebrations of local self-rule, so Kennard’s story serves as an important example of how justice for individuals and local integrity should both be protected.

Clyde Kennard lived in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and ran his own business selling farm supplies. A Korean War veteran, he sought to further his education by attending the local college. Normally, this would be seen as the aspiration of a respected citizen, worthy to be cited as a role model in the community.

Except for one thing: Kennard was black in Jim Crow Mississippi, and the local college he wanted to attend, Mississippi Southern College, was reserved by state policy to whites only. Sinister forces in the state tried to stop him from integrating the college, and they succeeded. A statewide organization known as the Citizens’ Councils, dedicated to enforcing white supremacy, was (metaphorically) a Ku Klux Kiwanis made up of many of the respectable and influential citizens of Mississippi. They took an interest in persecuting Kennard. One of their members suggested arranging a car “accident” where Kennard would be killed—hardly a vain threat in Mississippi in that era.

A sinister state agency, the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, also tried to block Kennard’s educational aspirations, but even an official of the Sovereignty Commission blanched at the lengths officialdom would go to keep Kennard out of the classroom.

There was also law enforcement, determined to enforce white rule not by upholding the law but by finding a way to frame Kennard for felony offense. The first attempt—the one which went too far even for the Sovereignty Commission representative—was to frame Kennard on liquor charges when he went to Mississippi Southern College to try to gain admission.

The segregationists finally succeeded in their goal of stopping Kennard by securing his conviction—and a prison sentence—for supposedly stealing chicken feed. The key witness against Kennard, who was black, denied coercion by the police, but he did have different stories at different times, including in speaking with the author of this book. The story the witness told at trial was the most incriminating and, believing it, the all-white jury convicted. While one would think chickenfeed-related matters would be fairly minor–the very term “chickenfeed” has entered the language as meaning too minor to trouble with–the judge gave Kennard several years in Parchman Penitentiary. Parchman, under a veneer of penal reform and kindly treatment of inmates, was actually quite a harsh environment, and Kennard was put to forced labor there.

Around the time he went to prison, Kennard had developed cancer. His attempts to be sent to outside hospitals for treatment were brushed aside by prison authorities, apparently letting the cancer progress to an incurable state (it would have been long odds in any case). Kennard’s condition got so bad that governor Ross Barnett belatedly ordered Kennard’s release.

As he lay dying, Kennard showed a distinctly non-bitter spirit. His only worry was that his efforts in the cause of racial justice would lapse into obscurity after his death, and at first that seemed to be the fate he would meet with: scarcely better than a footnote in the history of civil rights in Mississippi.

But as time went on, Kennard became what he hadn’t been in his own lifetime: remembered in his own hometown. Hattiesburg and Mississippi Southern College (later the University of Southern Mississippi) honored him with roads named after him, a scholarship, and so forth.

Meanwhile, in Illinois, a high school class under a dynamic teacher began agitating to have Kennard’s criminal conviction posthumously wiped out. Mississippi reporter Jerry Mitchell, who had pressured for the reopening of civil-rights era murder cases, joined the campaign to clear Kennard, and so did an organization which works for the exoneration of the wrongfully convicted (though most of their work is on behalf of living convicts). Mississippi officialdom was remarkably receptive to these ideas in the state’s more clearheaded era. Finally, with prosecutorial consent, the courts posthumously wiped out Kennard’s chickenfeed conviction.

What does a local community do when an intolerant majority railroads and oppresses one of its prominent citizens? Is local self-government a farce, requiring constant micromanaging by the center? Well, for one thing, in Kennard’s case, the central authority was the government of Mississippi, a state as big as Greece and hardly a model of localism. And of course Mississippi was itself defying the federal government in Washington whose school-desegregation decrees and involvement in civil rights prosecutions were denounced by white Mississippi leaders as evils brought about by a centralized government. The central authorities can insist on certain measures of fair play in local communities. The Fifteenth Amendment, largely disobeyed in the Jim Crow South, required a nonracial franchise, which would have allowed all citizens to participate in state and local government, not simply a domineering white majority. With nonracial suffrage, white voters and politicians would have had to accustom themselves to working with fellow citizens of all backgrounds in the solving of common problems. Mississippi’s Jim Crow juries were chosen from the voting rolls, so the discriminatory voting system allowed for an almost exclusively white jury system. With multiracial juries, justice might have been administered more evenhandedly. In this way, perhaps the majority won’t have the means to oppress the minority (at least not as effectively), and so long as the local community works out its destiny with the cooperation of all groups, localist aspirations can still be met.

While the racial situation today is far from what it ought to be, people at least profess to be shocked by nightmarish stories like Clyde Kennard’s. Kennard himself, though worrying about his legacy during his last illness, seemed remarkably free of bitterness. Concerning a prison guard who had abused him, he thought that the abuse had harmed the guard more than himself. After all, the abuse hadn’t hurt Kennard’s character, but it had warped the guard’s morality, which Kennard considered a worse harm than being on the receiving end of the guard’s abuse.

After Kennard’s inability to get into Mississippi Southern College, James Meredith became the first black person (known to be such) to be admitted to the University of Mississippi (“Ole Miss”). This broke Mississippi’s color barrier in education and prepared the ground for a comparatively more multicultural system in education and in local communities throughout the state.

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