The Clyde Kennard Story, The First African American to Try Enroll at the University of Southern Miss
HATTIESBURG, MISS. – The University of Southern Mississippi holds a special piece of the civil rights history. During the 1950s, civil rights pioneer Clyde Kennard tried to enroll in the university.
“Clyde Kennard in the 1950s tried to enroll at Mississippi Southern College at the time, which would eventually become the University of Southern Mississippi,” USM’s Center of Black Studies Director, Sherita Johnson said. “He just made an honest attempt to come to a school nearby his home.”
Kennard paved the way for what we see today, students of all races and ethnicities are attending the college of their choice within the state of Mississippi. After serving in the Korean War this veteran came home to find himself fighting another war within his own county called desegregation.
“He tried to enroll several times, at least three times,” Johnson mentioned.
Kennard didn’t get accepted either time. Despite having already completed three years of his undergraduate degree at the University of Chicago, and maintaining good grades, Kennard’s race stood as a barrier between him and Mississippi Southern College.
“Unfortunately, by that third attempt he had a gotten the attention of the state wide Sovereignty Commission,” Johnson said.
The Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, a state agency established to preserve segregation.
“From that point, it went to the blocking of him going any further,” Johnson mentioned. “There were different obstacles placed before him. At one point he had to get letters of support from at least ten alumni. At the time they would’ve been all white… who they knew would’ve been impossible for him to get support for this application.”
The back breaker to Kennard’s dreams came on Tuesday, September 15, 1959, when two Hattiesburg constables arrested Kennard for reckless driving.
“The false arrests, they gave these trumped up charges,” Johnson explained. “One was on the charge of alcoholism. They planted liquor in his car, and everyone in his community knew he was a devoted Christian and he did not drink, so that couldn’t have been the case. The second one, he was accused of stealing chicken feed or at least creating this scheme to steal chicken feed from a local co-op and that was the last one that really lead to the arrest that sent him to Parchman Farm.”
Kennard became ill while imprisoned, and died soon after his release date.
“So, I guess you would say in terms of civil rights in Hattiesburg the Clyde Kennard story is a little known event in the civil rights movement,” Johnson stated.
It is a story Johnson feels more people need to know, and that’s why Johnson, along with a few of her colleagues decided to create a documentary about Kennard’s story.
“Tonight’s film on Clyde Kennard was outstanding because it helps us remember a true civil rights pioneer. His story is one of the most courageous and compelling of the whole civil rights movement,” Mississippi Department of Achieves and History, Brother Rogers said after seeing the documentary.
“He was a trailblazer, and applying for Southern Miss. when he did… he laid the ground work for desegregation of Southern Miss. in 1965, and contributed to what we see at Southern Miss. today,” USM’s Director of the School of Mass Communication, David R. Davies also said after seeing the documentary.
“Well fortunately, what we have is what Clyde Kennard predicted would happen,” Johnson said. “One of the things he wrote about in his letter is in order for us to fully understand each other, ‘we have to be trained together in our youth,’ and that’s quoting from his letters verbatim. He felt that education in the classroom was how we were going to move forward. How we would get beyond these issues of race and conflict. Once we could learn together, and eventually learn and live together and grow together that was his goal, and today we are living on that legacy.”
A legacy passed down through multiple generations, paving the way for what we see today. The school eventually became desegregated in 1965 by Raylawni Branch and Gwendolyn Chambers.
I tell these stories not to pull people apart, but highlight and show how powerful we become when we work together. Regardless of color or ethnicity, love and understanding for each other takes us further than hate and division with that said, let’s continue to love each other and strive to make this world a better place.