Several of the Washington, D.C.-area’s most celebrated civil rights leaders converged on Busboys and Poets at 14th and V streets NW recently to pay homage to a man who gave his life in the quest for freedom.
Clyde Kennard was a Korean War veteran who lived in Hattiesburg, Miss., who started a public campaign after he was denied admittance to the then-all White Mississippi Southern College, now the University of Southern Mississippi. Instead of changing minds about letting him into the university, however, he was framed for a crime he did not commit and sent to prison for seven years to quiet his voice.
As his condition grew grave, throngs of supporters were successful in getting him released. He died in July 1963.
On Nov. 14, several of the late Kennard’s friends from the Civil Rights Movement came together to celebrate him, including Dorie Ladner and her sister, Dr. Joyce Ladner, former members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committees.
Both helped in the effort to free Kennard. Also at the program were Julian Bond, the former congressman and NAACP president emeritus who also fought for freedom as a SNCC member; and Dick Gregory, who paid for Kennard to travel to Chicago to be treated for his illness shortly after he was released from prison, six months before he died.
Speakers described Kennard as a soft-spoken peaceful man who fought a gentle fight for his rights and the rights of others. His sword was his pen, which he wielded mightily, writing eloquent arguments on behalf of his cause and the wrongs of segregation. To quiet him, a jury convicted him of theft in a conspiracy that included some of the highest-ranking law enforcement officials in Hattiesburg.
“Now this principle is an easy one for us to follow, for it holds as true in human history, especially American History, as it does in logic,” Kennard wrote to the Hattiesburg American in 1959. “Reason tells us that two things, different in location, different in constitution, different in origin, and different in purpose cannot possibly be equal. History has verified this conclusion.”
The Ladner sisters spoke affectionately about Kennard. Members of the Split This Rock D.C. Youth Slam read excerpts of Kennard letters. Eddie Holloway, the current president of the USM, talked about the school Kennard so wanted to attend.
A portrait of Kennard by Robert Shetterly, a member of Americans Who Tell the Truth, was unveiled. Previously, Shetterly has portrayed Gregory, Rep. John Lewis and civil rights martyr Ella Baker.
Years after his death, Kennard’s name was cleared.