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Published: Saturday, 5/13/2006

Mississippi governor is missing an opportunity

BY ROSE RUSSELL

MISSISSIPPI Gov. Haley Barbour really should explain why he refuses to posthumously pardon a man who even he believes was flagrantly framed by state officials.

The case of the late Clyde Kennard is frustrating. Were it not for the time and place where his life took a dramatic turn, it might be unbelievable.

But it was 1960 in Mississippi, and what had happened to Emmit Till five years earlier still looms in the background of our minds today.

Mr. Kennard's only mistake was moving from Chicago to Hattiesburg, Miss. He wanted to finish his undergraduate work at what's now the University of Southern Mississippi.

However, his applications for admission were rejected repeatedly, even though he had completed three years of undergraduate studies at the University of Chicago, where he enrolled after finishing seven years in the Army, serving in Germany and Korea.

However, this Army veteran's goal of going to the southern college attracted state authorities, for whom the school's rejection was not enough. His acceptance would have integrated the institution. They wanted him framed or dead, and theirs was not a covert quest. The New York Times said that according to records at the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, their intentions were openly discussed.

Mr. Kennard, 33, a black man, was convicted as an accessory for stealing $25 worth of chicken feed. Another black man, 19-year-old Johnny Lee Roberts, who stole the goods, said at the time Mr. Kennard asked him to do it.

Apparently Mr. Roberts was no threat to whites in Mississippi then, since he was only given a suspended sentence. However, Mr. Kennard got a seven-year prison term. You read that right.

Now Mr. Roberts recants the story. He says, "Kennard did not ask me to do anything illegal. Kennard is not guilty of burglary or any other crime."

Should anyone believe him? After all, he lied before and could be again. It's too bad that the Mississippi parole board can't find the decency to recommend a posthumous pardon.

After a three-month investigation, the Jackson, Miss. Clarion-Ledger is convinced of Mr. Kennard's innocence. The pardon is supported by the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University's law school in Chicago and the Adlai E. Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, Ill.

Mr. Barbour's office says that issuing a pardon would be an empty gesture. Obviously he's worried about losing political support if he gives the pardon. However, perhaps he should consider the votes he would gain by making the pardon.

After all, when the governor issued a proclamation on Clyde Kennard Day on March 30, he told Mississippians to recall Mr. Kennard's "determination, the injustices he suffered, and his significant role in the history of the civil rights movement in Mississippi."

Yet the governor's spokesman insists he isn't about to grant a pardon. Pete Smith said, "The governor hasn't pardoned anyone, be it alive or deceased."

Well, we're not just talking about any old body, Mr. Smith and Mr. Barbour. A posthumous pardon is being sought for a man who was framed by state authorities, and wrongly imprisoned because he wanted to obtain his degree from your southern college. Mr. Kennard was released from prison shortly before he died of colon cancer in 1963.

A senior at Stevenson High School is curious about the governor's reasoning. "If you are going to say no, at least give us a decent reason," said Mona Ghadiri.

Good point.

Meanwhile, imagine that if Mr. Kennard had been allowed to enroll at the University of Southern Mississippi, how much he might have added to its reputation. He was described as not merely smart, but a brilliant man.

If Mr. Barbour refuses to realize what granting the pardon could do for his own political career, it will be a missed opportunity.



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