Long Journey 'Down Home'

CLARENCE PAGE

February 26, 1993|By CLARENCE PAGE

HATTIESBURG, MISSISSIPPI — Hattiesburg, Mississippi. -- It was a long train ride home for Clyde Kennard. The Korean War veteran was doing fine at the University of Chicago. But his stepfather died, so Kennard decided to go back home to Mississippi to take care of his mother and the family farm.

He still wanted that degree, so he decided to enroll in Mississippi Southern College in nearby Hattiesburg. Why not? It was close, he had accumulated impressive credits in Chicago and Mississippi Southern survived in some small part off his tax dollars.

The school turned Clyde Kennard down for a reason he could not control. He was black, the school was all white and the times were the late 1950s. Black men could not even travel the state's back roads safely after dark, let alone enroll in its white colleges.

Nevertheless, Kennard, a persistent soul, reapplied repeatedly, only to be repeatedly turned down. Then one day in 1959 he was arrested and charged with carrying liquor in his car, a crime in ''dry'' Mississippi.

Then later he was arrested again, this time for possessing $25 worth of stolen chicken feed. The thief was given a suspended sentence and kept his job at the feed store, but Kennard was sentenced to seven years at hard labor. Yes, that's $3.57 a year. For chicken feed.

Kennard's story did not have a happy ending. While serving on a ''sunup to sundown'' chain gang, he contracted stomach cancer. When he was not released for treatment, Martin Luther King, Dick Gregory and others persuaded then-Gov. Ross Barnett to permit treatment, threatening to accuse the governor of murder if Kennard died in jail. Instead, he died in a Chicago hospital on July 4, 1963.

Years later, Mississippi newspaper reporters would confirm that the whiskey was planted in Kennard's car, a conspiracy by the state Sovereignty Commission, a state-funded spying agency, now disbanded, created in 1956 to thwart integration.

Thanks to a modern effort to heal old wounds, the University of Southern Mississippi, Mississippi Southern's new name, has named a building after Kennard and Alcorn State University President Walter Washington, who in 1969 became the first African-American to receive a doctoral degree at Southern Mississippi. It is a rare case of a college's honoring an applicant for being rejected, all part of a massive healing process in the New South.

Thanks to a kindly invitation, I was able to witness this one. As a featured speaker, I joined Washington and 23 other black ''firsts'' for the dedication ceremony. As I watched the school's first black athlete, teacher, librarian, academic dean, head coach, department chair, student body president and student newspaper editor stand up for applause, my thoughts raced back to ''Freedom Summer'' in 1964, when hundreds of black and white college students poured into backwoods Mississippi to risk their lives so others might vote.

''The purpose,'' organizer Bob Moses said recently, ''was to break open Mississippi as a closed society.''

Mississippi had the worst reputation of all the Southern states for raising the banner of segregation and enforcing it through sheriffs and other state power. Even today I ride its back roads with apprehension. Any moment now, my imagination tells me, some backwoods ''good ol' boy'' might decide to take the shotgun down off the rack in his pickup truck and blow me away, like the final scene in ''Easy Rider.''

Yet, I marvel at how hospitable even Mississippi has become in three decades to African-Americans, who in my family, at least, still call the South ''down home'' or ''the old country'' no matter how far from it we may roam.

In 1964, civil-rights organizer Julian Bond predicted that when integration finally came, the South would adjust to it more quickly than the North would. I thought he was nuts. I was wrong.

Northern ''Jim Crow'' was just more subtle. No ''white'' or ''colored'' signs, but access to certain jobs, stores, hotels, restaurants and neighborhoods was strictly proscribed by word of mouth and, as they used to say in the South, by ''custom and traditions.''

As Southern whites acknowledge their centuries-old obligations to blacks with whom they shared a tumultuous history, Northern whites practice resolute denial. ''My family didn't own any slaves,'' they say. ''Why should I be punished?''

Right. As long as some Americans view historic obligations as ''punishment,'' we'll never get along.

When federal legislation dismantled underpinnings of legal segregation, whites stopped rioting against civil rights in the South. Instead, their brethren rioted in Chicago and Boston, among other Northern cities, against open housing, school busing and other modest efforts to integrate blacks into the white mainstream.

Or blacks rioted in Los Angeles, Detroit, Miami and other cities to protest racism that defied civil-rights laws. Today's racial debate, in the South as in the North, concerns whether ''race'' or ''class'' is more important in determining opportunity for black Americans. These days, I lean toward ''class.'' But ''race'' still matters. A lot.

''Freedom Summer'' organizer Bob Moses' answer is a national educational program he founded called the Algebra Project. It helps young blacks and Hispanics learn fluent algebra in middle school, so they can lock on to the college-prep math track.

Good for him. Good for them. Education is the best liberator. Nothing else does a better job of cracking through barriers of race or class. Clyde Kennard knew that. He was just a few years ahead of his time.

Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

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