Mississippi honors man who struggled to integrate university

The state of Mississippi is recognizing a man who sought to integrate a segregated university until he was falsely imprisoned and denied treatment for the cancer that claimed his life.

On Friday, the Mississippi Freedom Trail Task Force dedicated a historic marker acknowledging Forrest County native Clyde Kennard, a black man who repeatedly tried to enroll at the all-white Mississippi Southern College, now the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg, from 1955 to 1959 as part of an effort to desegregate higher education. It's the trail's 26th marker.

Ultimately, Kennard was falsely charged with stealing chicken feed and whiskey and sentenced to seven years at Mississippi's State Penitentiary at Parchman. While there, he was diagnosed with cancer but was denied proper treatment until he was critically ill. Under pressure of bad publicity should Kennard die at Parchman, Gov. Ross Barnett ordered his release in spring 1963. He died that summer at age 36.

"He is most worthy to receive this recognition," said Eddie A. Holloway, USM dean of students. "He plays such a significant role in the desegregation of schools in higher education in Mississippi. His life and legacy remains and should be marked or connoted by future generations."

Leslie Burl McLemore, chairman of the task force, said Kennard's role in Mississippi's desegregation history should not be overlooked.

"He tried to gain admission before James Meredith was admitted to the University of Mississippi" in 1962, said McLemore. "That's truly significant. What he endured was monumental and a human tragedy. It's only right that the university would honor him in this way."

On March 30, 2006, Kennard was declared innocent of the crimes that sent him to Parchman. USM ultimately renamed its student services building in honor of Kennard and Walter Washington, the first African-American to earn a doctoral degree from Southern Miss. The university also established a scholarship program to continue Kennard's legacy. More than 40 students have benefited from the program.

Friday's ceremony was held outside the campus building that bears Kennard's name.

"This provides closure to a number of people still alive who remember those dark days of our history," Holloway said. "Time tends to reveal and, in many instances heal. This recognition speaks volumes about the university, the legislature and the civil rights commission."

The Freedom Trail is a series of state-funded signs at noteworthy civil rights sites. The trail's first marker, erected in 2011, recognizes Emmett Till, a black youth who was killed in 1955 in Money, Mississippi, after a white woman said she was offended by him.

Historic markers have also been placed in honor of Fannie Lou Hamer, Medgar Evers, Meredith and others.