Dr. Aubrey K. Lucas, the former president of the University of Southern Mississippi, was the admissions counselor at then-Mississippi Southern College when Clyde Kennard applied to enter the university in 1955-1959. Lucas said he had no choice in the matter.
“The Mississippi Sovereignty Commission took over all of that,” he said Friday after the dedication of the Mississippi Freedom Trail Marker to honor Kennard on the USM campus. “We were serving a clerical role only. No, the decisions weren’t made on this campus.”
Dr. Leslie-Burl McLemore, chairman of the Mississippi Freedom Trail, challenged USM President Rodney D. Bennett to make Kennard’s story is taught to every Southern Miss student. Lucas agreed and makes certain that Kennard is remembered.
“I speak to the Luckyday Scholars every year and I tell them about Clyde Kennard,” he said. “So, yes, I do think that needs to be a part of orientation.”
Lucas said naming the Kennard Washington Hall – where the Freedom Trail marker was placed for Kennard – also has significant importance.
“It was a great step when we named this building,” he said. “If you go inside this building, you will see on either side of this entry the first African American participation in this university. That was in the 1990s and we did that, and it should have been done.”
Ironically, the admission office housed inside Kennard Washington Hall.
“We preserved his name because anyone who comes on this campus and comes to be admitted comes to the Kennard Building,” Lucas said.
Kennard tried to enter Mississippi Southern three times and was turned away, being arrested the third time. He was later falsely charged with stealing chicken feed, sentenced and sent to the State Penitentiary at Parchman. While there, he was diagnosed with cancer, but he was denied proper treatment until he was critically ill. Gov. Ross Barnett ordered his release in spring 1963 and he died that summer at age 36.
On March 30, 2006, Kennard was declared innocent of the crimes that sent him to Parchman after an investigation into the Sovereignty Commission.
During the marker dedication Friday, speakers included USM Student Government Association President Cameron Cloud, Dr. Sherita Johnson, associate professor of English and director of the USM Center for Black Studies; USM students Brandon Rue and Lisa Brackeen, USM alumna and Kennard Scholar Vivian Gore DeLoach and the Rev. Wilbert Singleton Jr. of Mary Magdalene Baptist Church. The USM dance troupe Harlem performed an interpretive dance.
USM established a scholarship program that has helped more than 40 students to continue Kennard's legacy.
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 after a white woman said she was offended by him. Historic markers have also been placed in honor of Fannie Lou Hamer, Medgar Evers, James Meredith and others.
The marker honoring Kennard is the state’s 26th one.