Pardon Unlikely for Civil Rights Advocate
Published on Thursday, May 4, 2006 by the New York Times
Pardon Unlikely for Civil Rights Advocate
by Adam Liptak
 

Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi acknowledges that Clyde Kennard suffered a grievous wrong at the hands of state officials more than 45 years ago. But he says he will not grant a posthumous pardon to Mr. Kennard, a black man who was falsely imprisoned after trying to desegregate a Mississippi college.

Mr. Kennard moved home to Hattiesburg, Miss., after seven years in the Army in Germany and Korea and three years as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago. He wanted to finish his education at the local college.

But because that college, Mississippi Southern, was reserved for whites, state officials not only rejected Mr. Kennard's repeated applications but also plotted to kill him.

They kept him out of college by convicting him of helping to steal $25 of chicken feed based on what the sole witness now says was perjury. The 1960 conviction drew a seven-year prison term, and Mr. Kennard died of cancer in 1963.

Last month, Mr. Kennard's supporters asked Governor Barbour, a Republican, for a pardon. The state parole board must first make a recommendation, but Mr. Barbour has already said he will not consider granting one.

"The governor hasn't pardoned anyone, be it alive or deceased," said Mr. Barbour's spokesman, Pete Smith. "The governor isn't going to issue a pardon here."

Mr. Smith added that a pardon would be an empty gesture.

"The governor believes that Clyde Kennard was wronged, and if he were alive today his rights would be restored," Mr. Smith said. "There's nothing the governor can do for Clyde Kennard right now."

Mr. Kennard's case, which was the subject of a recent three-month investigation by The Clarion-Ledger of Jackson, Miss., has also been pursued by students at Adlai E. Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, Ill., and the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University's law school, in Chicago. Several of the students involved said they were baffled by Mr. Barbour's response.

"Please," said Mona Ghadiri, 17, a senior at Stevenson High, addressing Governor Barbour, "if you are going to say no, at least give us a decent reason."

The only evidence against Mr. Kennard was the testimony of a black man named Johnny Lee Roberts, then 19, who said that Mr. Kennard, 33, had asked him to steal the chicken feed. Mr. Roberts, who did the stealing, received a suspended sentence. Mr. Kennard, convicted as an accessory, got a year for every $3.57 of feed.

Mr. Roberts has recanted, first to Jerry Mitchell of The Clarion-Ledger and then in a sworn statement before a judge.

"Kennard did not ask me to steal," Mr. Roberts said in the sworn statement. "Kennard did not ask me to do anything illegal. Kennard is not guilty of burglary or any other crime."

"I have always felt bad about what happened to Clyde," Mr. Roberts continued. "He was a good man."

Joyce A. Ladner, a sociologist, remembered being mentored by Mr. Kennard when she was a teenager. "He was a quiet, very dignified guy, a real gentleman," Ms. Ladner said of Mr. Kennard.

Aubrey K. Lucas, the director of admissions at the college when Mr. Kennard applied, recalled in an interview that it was the governor, J. P. Coleman, who decided against admitting Mr. Kennard.

That was a mistake, said Mr. Lucas, who went on to be president of what became the University of Southern Mississippi. "Kennard would have been the perfect person to integrate this university," Mr. Lucas said. "He didn't bring attorneys with him. He didn't bring the N.A.A.C.P. leadership."

There was little question of Mr. Kennard's qualifications.

"Everybody who knew him refers to him as brilliant not as a smart man but as a brilliant man," said Barry Bradford, the teacher at Stevenson High who directed its project on Mr. Kennard, available at www.clydekennard.org.

State authorities had a different reaction. The files of the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, the state's segregationist spy agency, show that killing or framing Mr. Kennard was openly discussed as preferable to allowing him to enroll at the college.

March 30 was Clyde Kennard Day in Mississippi, and Governor Barbour issued a proclamation. He urged citizens to remember Mr. Kennard's "determination, the injustices he suffered, and his significant role in the history of the civil rights movement in Mississippi."

There has apparently never been a posthumous pardon in Mississippi, but there have been such pardons in 10 other states and in the federal system. Yesterday, Gov. Brian Schweitzer of Montana posthumously pardoned 78 people convicted of sedition early in the last century.

Mr. Lucas said pardoning Mr. Kennard might cost Mr. Barbour a few votes.

"There are some people around here still," Mr. Lucas said, "who think we should be separate as races and who refuse to see the errors of our past. But I can't imagine it would be a factor in his re-election."

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

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