Almost 60 years ago, a black Korean War veteran named Clyde Kennard applied to Mississippi Southern College after serving seven years in the Army. The all-white school rejected him for a spurious reason. It required him to provide references from five white alumni in his county, yet when he asked for a list of alumni names, they refused to give it to him. Kennard met every other criteria for admission. The school’s president reported Kennard’s enrollment attempt to the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, a governmental agency that spied on civil rights workers, along with anyone considered sympathetic to the cause.
After being rejected, Kennard applied a second time to Mississippi Southern College. He was rejected again and applied a third time. He had been honorably discharged from the Army and had studied at the University of Chicago. After returning home to Mississippi, his goal was to major in political science and graduate from college.
Kennard wrote a letter to the local paper saying that people should be judged by their abilities, not by the color of their skin. He vowed to take his case to court. When it became clear he wouldn’t give up, powerful institutions, including local law enforcement, the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, and the FBI, went after him. To them, Kennard was an “agitator” aiming to destroy their way of life—one that was built on rigid segregation and the unchallenged belief in white supremacy. All it would take was one black student attending an all-white school to crack that edifice. One black student would lead to more, and whites’ way of life would weaken and fall.
What the authorities did to Clyde Kennard was deeply shameful. Local police arrested him on false charges of speeding and illegal possession of whiskey. A local judge declared him guilty on both counts, despite the fact that he was a strict Baptist who didn’t drink alcohol. Then someone who had stolen five bags of chicken feed from a local cooperative falsely accused him of planning the burglary. Kennard was charged with a felony and found guilty by an all-white jury. He was sentenced to the notorious Parchman Penitentiary and forced to work on a cotton plantation owned by the prison. Kennard became seriously ill but received no medical treatment. He died in 1963 at the age of 36.
One aspect of this story that is worth pondering is how a single college application from a war veteran could trigger such fear, outrage, and violent retribution by powerful institutions. Looking back, we see the racism—and pathology—in their actions. But at the time, racial hostility fell well within the norms of conventional society. Indeed, it was called other things, such as honor, tradition, patriotism, and religious belief.
I thought of Clyde Kennard last week when Gov. Jan Brewer (R-AZ) vetoed a bill that sanctioned discrimination against gay people. The bill would have let businesses refuse to serve gays and lesbians if doing so violated the religious beliefs of their owners. Conservative legislatures in other states have introduced similar bills. But the uprising against the Arizona bill from everyone from former Gov. Mitt Romney (R-MA) and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) to the NFL makes it less likely that those bills will easily pass.
There seems to be a shift in the wind. What had been called religious belief is looking like discrimination. What had seemed a reasonable, or even honorable, defense of traditional morality is looking like bigotry. The homophobia that has been so embedded in our culture is being called out by its name. In so doing, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender, or LGBT, advocates and a growing band of allies, including people of faith, are weakening the edifice of injustice.
This is not to say that the movements for LGBT equality and civil rights are the same. Each is distinct. But both signify how legal and cultural change occurs. It is not a straightforward path. First, those targeted stand up to challenge unjust norms and fight immoral laws. Those in power, including “decent people,” feel threatened and lash out. The targets of their attacks do not relent. They persist and begin to win over others. The movement spreads and grows stronger. The culture shifts—and so do its laws.
If Clyde Kennard were alive today, he would be 86 years old. While in prison, he taught fellow inmates to read and write. In a letter to the Hattiesburg American, he wrote, “If there is one quality of Americans which would set them apart from almost any other peoples, it is the history of their struggle for liberty and justice under the law.” Kennard and those who came after him in the struggle for liberty and justice were able to envision a more perfect union. Then they worked to make it real.
Sally Steenland is Director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. Steenland, a best-selling author, former newspaper columnist, and teacher, explores the role of religion and values in the public sphere.