U of C alumnus exonerated after 46 years

By Lokchi Lam

Clyde Kennard, a former black U of C student who attended the College for three years in the 1950s, was exonerated posthumously by the state of Mississippi last Wednesday after being framed 46 years ago for stealing chicken feed.

A secret segregationist state agency had targeted him after he repeatedly attempted to integrate the then all-white University of Southern Mississippi.

The pardon was the result of the efforts of Jerry Mitchell, an investigative reporter for the Jackson Clarion Ledger, and Steven Drizin, a lawyer at the Northwestern Center for Wrongful Convictions, as well as a group of high school students in Lincolnshire, Illinois and their teacher, Barry Bradford, who worked on the case as part of the National History Day Club.

Bradford, a social sciences teacher, undertook the cause “to try to rewrite history,” he said.

Kennard was a Korean War veteran who attended the U of C with the help of the G.I. Bill. He left the U of C in 1956, after his third year, to take care of his mother in Mississippi following the death of his stepfather.

“He wanted to be able to attend [the University of] Southern [Mississippi] to get his poli sci degree,” said Mitchell, who has been investigating old civil rights cases for 17 years. “Mississippi, you realize, at this point was totally segregated.”

“Keep in mind, this happened in the same years that Robert Kennedy had to send armed forces to integrate the University of Alabama,” Bradford said.

Kennard did not get outside help at the time, Bradford said. Instead, he attempted to reason with the president of the college in order to finish the degree work he began at the U of C.

The president refused. Kennard made repeated attempts to enroll at the college, until the college solicited help from a secret government spy agency, the Sovereignty Commission. The agency was ostensibly created to “protect the sovereignty of the state of Mississippi” from federal interference, but was used in practice to preserve segregation.

Kennard was first arrested in 1959 on charges of reckless driving and possession of alcohol.

“Witnesses saw police put the liquor in his car,” Bradford said. “It was illegal at the time in Mississippi to have liquor in your car. But it was well known that Clyde Kennard didn’t drink.”

“The Commission records also show there was a plot at one point to attach dynamite to the starter of Kennard’s car,” Mitchell said.

He was arrested the following year on charges of burglary and accused of buying $25 of stolen chicken feed. The thief testified against him, and Kennard was sentenced to seven years in prison.

The Sovereignty Commission became defunct in the ’70s, and its files were opened to the public in 1998. Documents describing the plans to frame Kennard were found.

“The Commission, including the governor, knew this guy was framed,” Mitchell said. “But they didn’t do anything about it.”

Kennard was diagnosed with cancer while in jail.

“He was being tortured,” Bradford said. “He was being refused food and water and medical treatment at some points.”

When it became clear “even to the courts” that he was dying, Kennard was released on parole. He died at the U of C Hospitals in 1963, on July 4.

Haley Barbour, the current governor of Mississippi, had refused to pardon Kennard even though he had repeatedly declared Kennard innocent. Mitchell speculated that the governor wanted Kennard’s name to be cleared in the courts instead.

Last month, Mitchell tracked down the man who had stolen the chicken feed, and got the man to retract his testimony under oath. This became the basis for a petition from Barbour and several others. A judge in Hattiesburg threw out the conviction.

Bradford reflected on the importance of Kennard’s exoneration. “It’s a very important thing for a nation to tell its history correctly,” he said. “In one sense, we never cleared [Kennard’s] name, because he was never guilty. We cleared Mississippi’s name. We gave it a chance to take responsibility for its actions.”

“I have no doubt a lot of people were convicted when they were innocent,” Mitchell said. “This was in the ’50s and ’60s. This isn’t something that just happened back then. It still happens today.”

Although the University of Southern Mississippi named a building after Kennard in 1993, the state of Mississippi never previously took steps to clear his name.