In the late 1950s, Mr. Clyde Kennard attempted to transfer from the University of Chicago, where he was as a student in good standing, to the University Of Southern Mississippi. The segregationist leaders of the time framed him for the crime of receiving stolen chicken feed and, after a mockery of a trial, sentenced him to prison to make sure that no African American would ever enter the University Of Southern Mississippi. To compound the tragedy, he became gravely ill in prison, was badly mistreated, and died shortly after receiving clemency, based on his medical condition.
Clyde Kennard's only "crime" was being an African American man who wanted to go to college.
His martyrdom helped open the door for all men and women to attend the college of their choice.
In 2005 - 20006, three Stevenson High Schools students, Mona Ghadiri, Agnes Mazur and Callie McCune worked on a unique collaboration with Professor Steven A. Drizin and the Northwestern University School Of Law Center On Wrongful Convictions, to convince MS. Governor Haley Barbour to issue a posthumous pardon and expungement of the record, so as to clear Mr. Kennard's good name for the record.
Kennard was factually innocent of the charges.
Only one witness could be found to testify against him. That man was the actual culprit, Mr. Johnny Lee Roberts. On Friday January 27, 2006, Sarah Geraghty, an attorney, and Atteeyah Hollie, an investigator, both of whom work for the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta, Georgia, at the request of the Center on Wrongful Convictions, obtained a signed affidavit from Johnny Lee Roberts in which Mr. Roberts recants his trial testimony. The affidavit was obtained in the presence of Vanessa J. Jones, a local judge. A copy of that affidavit is available here. In language that is crystal clear, Mr. Roberts exonerates Kennard of any criminal activity. Here is a direct quote from Mr. Roberts:
Mr. Roberts first stated this recantation to Jerry Mitchell, an award winning investigative reporter from the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, who has been at the forefront of discovering the truth about Kennard, and Lt. Col. Raylawni Branch, a retired United States Army officer.
Without Mr. Roberts testimony, there is no evidence at all that Mr. Kennard was guilty of any crime whatsoever.
In 1957, after Clyde Kennard first sought to enroll at the University of Southern Mississippi, he was arrested and charged with illegal possession of alcohol and reckless driving. Years later, in 1993, when the files of the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission were unsealed, it was learned that Commission members sought to frame Kennard by placing the liquor in his car.
Clyde Kennard's trial was seriously flawed.
Although well represented by the legendary R. Jess Brown, Kennard was denied serious safeguards. A thorough reading of the transcript by the legal experts at the Center for Wrongful Convictions has shown that the case was rushed into court, despite repeated requests by Mr. Brown to delay the trial to allow adequate time to prepare his case. Kennard's attorneys also moved to quash the indictment and venire on the ground that blacks were systematically excluded from the grand and petit jurues in Forrest County, MS. Medgar Evers, a close friend of Kennard's, retained Thurgood Marshall to represent Kennard before the United States Supreme Court, which refused to hear his appeal. Although the evidence came too late to help Kennard, the Justice Department later concluded that Forrest County Circuit Clerk Theron Lynd had been routinely barring qualified blacks from registering to vote.
The Kennard case has long be seen as a tragic example of the lengths to which racists would go to deprive African Americans of their civil rights.
Medgar and Myrlie Evers fought valiantly to have Kennard freed (Evers was even convicted and jailed for contempt of court when he publicly criticized Kennard's burglary conviction.) Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King often cited the case as an example of the depravity of a corrupt judicial system, and authors such as Taylor Branch have long called the Kennard case a national disgrace.
The Mississippi Legislature took a step towards acknowledging the contributions of Clyde Kennard to the Civil Rights Movement of Mississippi by passing a resolution stating:
"we do hereby remember the legacy of the late Clyde Kennard, the first black student to apply for admittance to the University of Southern Mississippi, for his significant role in the university and for his significant role in the history of the civil rights movement in Mississippi."
On March 30, the State of Mississippi declared Clyde Kennard Day and the Governor declared that Kennard was not guilty! But the Governor still refused to pardon him!
On Wednesday, May 16, 2006, Judge Robert Helfrich agreed with a motion brought by a legal team led by former Mississippi Governor William Winter, former Federal Judge Charles W. Pickering, and former Mississippi Chief Justice Reuben Anderson, and overturned Kennard's conviction, declared him innocent, and expunged the record of his arrest. The honest and fair District Attorney, Mr. Weathers, truly represented the people of Mississippi by agreeing to the motion and also stating his firm belief in Clyde Kennard's innocence.