May 24, 2019  

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Spring Commencement Ceremony Features Special Honor for Clyde Kennard

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Pictured left to right: Dean of Students Dr. Eddie Holloway; President Emeritus Dr. Aubrey K. Lucas; Gloria Jean Pack; and President Rodney D. Bennett. (Photo by Kelly Dunn)

An American civil rights hero was honored by The University of Southern Mississippi on Friday, May 11, along with its spring 2018 graduates, during the school’s morning commencement ceremony.

Clyde Kennard, who made several attempts to enroll at Southern Miss in the 1950s to become its first African American student but was denied admission, was awarded a posthumous Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa, by USM President Rodney D. Bennett at the graduation exercise.

Gloria Jean Pack accepted the honor for Kennard at the ceremony. Pack is a member of Mary Magdalene Baptist Church in Eatonville, Miss. just outside of Hattiesburg, where Clyde Kennard was her Sunday school teacher. Kennard is buried on the church grounds.

“It just brings tears to my eyes,” Pack said of Kennard being honored with the degree. “It’s long overdue.

“He gave a lot – he was always willing to do for people. He just would help anyone who needed it,” Pack said. “If you were stuck on the side of the road with a flat tire, he’d stop and help you. You didn’t have to ask. He was just that type of person.”

The university held two commencement exercises on its Hattiesburg campus, with another set for Saturday, May 12 at the Mississippi Coast Coliseum in Biloxi. Approximately 1,900 students were candidates for degrees this semester.

Kennard’s efforts to enroll at the university ended after he was falsely accused of multiple crimes and ultimately sentenced to seven years at Parchman Farm, now the Mississippi State Penitentiary. While there, he was diagnosed with cancer but was denied proper medical treatment until he was critically ill. He was released on parole in January 1963 and died on July 4, 1963, at the age of 36.

In 1993, USM renamed the student services building on its Hattiesburg campus Kennard-Washington Hall in honor of Kennard and Dr. Walter Washington, the first African-American student to receive a doctoral degree from the institution. On March 30, 2006, Kennard was declared innocent after subsequent investigations showed that he had been framed.

During a February 2018 ceremony, a marker recognizing Kennard’s sacrifices was placed in front of Kennard-Washington Hall as part of the Mississippi Freedom Trail.

Dr. Doug Rouse, an orthopedist and partner in Southern Bone and Joint Specialists, P.A. in Hattiesburg and an outgoing member of the Board of Trustees of the State Institutions of Higher Learning (IHL), was the commencement speaker for the two commencement ceremonies at Reed Green Coliseum on the Hattiesburg campus.

Rouse, a Southern Miss alumnus, expressed hope that the graduates would “not be afraid to make changes, or take chances” to succeed in life, and to “do what they find fulfills their lives” in a world where, he said, they would be “competing with college graduates from all over the world for their future.”

“Broaden your horizons, not just today, but for the rest of your lives,” Dr. Rouse said.