May 25, 2018  

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The Kennard Legacy: Freedom Trail Marker Honors USM Civil Rights Icon’s Pursuit of Education

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Raylawni Branch, left, who along with Grendolyn Armstrong became the first African American students to integrate The University of Southern Mississippi, stands with Olivia Moore, a USM doctoral student in history, at a Mississippi Freedom Trail marker honoring Clyde Kennard. Kennard was the first African American student to attempt to enroll at Southern Miss.

For those familiar with the story of Clyde Kennard, the Mississippi Freedom Trail marker bearing his name stands, figuratively, at the intersection of injustice and redemption.  

Kennard, the first African-American to apply for admission to The University of Southern Mississippi, was honored at the unveiling ceremony for the marker on the school’s Hattiesburg campus Feb. 2, 2018 near the entrance of Kennard-Washington Hall, formerly the Student Services building. The event was attended by members of Kennard’s family, USM students, faculty, and staff members and administrators, among many others, in the launch of the university’s Black History Month activities.

The Mississippi Freedom Trail, founded in 2011, commemorates the people, places and events of the civil rights movement in the state. More information about the trail can be found at www.visitmississippi.org.

A decorated U.S. Army veteran of the Korean War and native of Forrest County, Kennard returned home in the 1950s to help at his family’s farm near the USM campus, then known as Mississippi Southern College (MSC). Previously a student at the University of Chicago, he sought to complete his college degree, but was denied admission three times at then segregated MSC. He was later convicted of accessory to burglary and imprisoned at the infamous Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman, but was released early after being diagnosed with cancer. He died July 4, 1963.

Gwendolyn Armstrong and Raylawni Branch broke the color barrier at Southern Miss in September 1965, when they enrolled as the University’s first African American students. 

Following subsequent investigations, many concluded the charges leading to Kennard’s imprisonment, as well as an earlier arrest for speeding and illegal possession of whiskey, were contrived to thwart his enrollment at MSC. In 2006, he was exonerated in Forrest County Chancery Court – the same court where Kennard was convicted – in response to efforts by USM students and many others, including LaKeisha Bryant, then president of USM’s Afro-American Student Association; former Mississippi Gov. William Winter; and former federal judge Charles H. Pickering to have Kennard’s name cleared.

Forrest County Chancery Court Judge Bob Helfrich said, in his decision at the 2006 hearing, “to me, this is not a black or white issue, this is a right or wrong issue. To correct that wrong, I am compelled to do the right thing and declare Mr. Kennard innocent, and his conviction is hereby null and void.”

Former Gov. Haley Barbour proclaimed March 30, 2006 as “Clyde Kennard Day,” which followed a resolution adopted by the Mississippi Legislature honoring Kennard.

In 1993 USM paid tribute to Kennard, along with Walter Washington, the first African American to earn a doctorate at USM, with the naming of its student services building in their honor.

In remarks on the establishment of the marker, USM President Rodney D. Bennett said “Today, we honor an unsung hero, Clyde Kennard, who had the courage to initiate change so that all individuals, regardless of race, color, or creed, could receive an education – no matter where they happened to be.

“More than 60 years after Clyde Kennard first stepped foot on campus, The University of Southern Mississippi has grown to become one of the most diverse institutions of higher learning in the state. Our student body represents 72 countries, all 50 states, and every corner of Mississippi, and we are committed to diversity and inclusion. We became who we are today because of Mr. Kennard’s courage, perseverance, and sacrifice.

“We were pleased to learn that the Mississippi Freedom Trail Task Force selected The University of Southern Mississippi as the location for its 26th Freedom Trail marker, honoring Clyde Kennard. This historical marker will stand firm in the heart of our campus, where all who pass by may learn the story of Clyde Kennard, a man of bravery and a leader of change.”

Dr Leslie McLemore, chairman of the Mississippi Freedom Trail Task Force and a guest speaker for the unveiling ceremony, called for Kennard’s story - one he described as “a difficult chapter in the history of our state” - to always be included in the education of Mississippi’s students about the civil rights movement.  

No one, McLemore said, should have endured what Kennard did, and expressed hope the addition of the Kennard marker to the Freedom Trail would impress upon all who see it the example set by his life.

“Long live the legacy and good work of our brother, Clyde Kennard,” Dr. McLemore said.

Kennard’s brother-in-law, Rev. Willie Grant, said Kennard was “a wonderful person who loved his family, and who stood by his commitment to finish his education.” Grant serves as pastor of Hattiesburg’s Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue Baptist Church.

“He believed in education, and wanted it not just for himself, but for everyone,” Grant said.

Dr. Sherita Johnson, associate professor of English and director of USM’s Center for Black Studies, said she hopes the marker "makes a lasting impression on all who pause before it to learn a little about Clyde Kennard, and be inspired in their own pursuit of freedom, equality and achievements in higher education.”

Dr. Kevin Greene, assistant professor of history and director of USM’s Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage, agrees with McLemore and said he’s committed to not only educating his students about Kennard in understanding of the civil rights movement in Mississippi, but also why they shouldn’t take their own right to an education for granted.

“I believe the lesson from Clyde Kennard that I want my students to take is to be determined to pursue their education, to be as determined as he was in risking it all in pursuit of it,” said Greene, whose research expertise includes the civil rights movement.

Dr. Rebecca Tuuri, a USM associate professor of history and like Greene, an expert on the civil rights movement, said that for more than 50 years, students in black-led organizations and some faculty and staff members at Southern Miss have kept the memory of Clyde Kennard alive on campus.

However, Tuuri believes the placement of the marker was “an important step in the acknowledgement of the role the school played in blocking Kennard’s admission, on its grounds, for all to see.”

“Hopefully students, faculty, and staff can learn about this remarkable man, as well as the horrible price he paid for his efforts to receive an education,” Tuuri said.

USM history doctoral student Olivia Moore of Plymouth, England, said witnessing the unveiling of the Kennard marker was a momentous occasion, “particularly because of the long struggle to come to terms with such a dark part of the past.”

“Kennard’s experience represents a tragic story of an individual who deserved an education at USM, but was repeatedly denied,” Moore said. “His bravery, perseverance, and commitment to bettering the state of Mississippi is an important chapter in our university's history.”

Atlanta resident Vivian Gore DeLoach, who attended USM from 1970-1974 and traveled to Hattiesburg for the marker ceremony, was the first recipient of the university’s Clyde Kennard Scholarship. She said Mississippi and USM have come a long way in the improvement of race relations and advancing social justice, though she believes there’s more work to be done.

“But I’m proud to be here on this day - happy to be back on campus, and so happy to see this marker established in his memory,” DeLoach said.