Thursday, May 11, 2006

Clyde Kennard

There are many good things about living in the Deep South. The pace of life is slower. People are generally more polite. Practically all the food is comfort food. But there are bad aspects to the Deep South, too, and the shadow of slavery and racism still looms large.

So when it was reported in the news yesterday that the Mississippi Parole Board had declined to recommend a posthumous pardon for Clyde Kennard, I just had to groan. The local newspaper article can be linked to here. Kennard, for those who don't know, was a Korean war vet who was falsely accused and convicted of burglary in 1960. His real crime? Trying--repeatedly but unsuccessfully--to enroll in Mississippi Southern College (now the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg), which at the time was all-white. More information on Kennard is available here. Parole Board Chairman Glenn Hamilton justified the board's decision by explaining that "a more appropriate and satisfying remedy may be available to exonerate the name of Mr. Clyde Kennard." In other words, the wrong done to Mr. Kennard was so egregious that a pardon is not a big enough gesture--so let's deny the pardon.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the board's recommendation against a pardon came after public statements by Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour that he would not grant a pardon, since pardons are for the living, not the dead. (Mr. Kennard died of colon cancer in 1963.) So you have to wonder whether the Parole Board caved to executive pressure. The board makes its pardon recommendations to the governor, so it could be that the board did not want to put the governor in the awkward position of denying a recommended pardon--which I understand has never before happened in this state.

I don't know. But whatever the logic, the decision is astounding. And shameful.

For the sake of argument, let's take Parole Board Chairman Hamilton at his word. Saying that the wrong was so great that pardon doesn't rectify it is like saying a crime we commit is so terrible that apologizing cannot make amends for that criminal act--so we refuse to apologize. That's ludicrous. And as for Governor Barbour's logic, it doesn't explain why President Ford pardoned Confederate General Robert E. Lee, or why other state governors have issued posthumous pardons.

I am not saying that we should not hew to rules. In the field of law, adherence to the rule of law sometimes generates unpopular results, and anyone who has been to law school understands this. The law is in many ways an imperfect proxy for morality, as is well-illustrated by the term "loophole": there is an intent behind a provision of law, but there is a way around it--a way to obey the letter of the law but violate its spirit. Yet underlying much of the law is the notion of morality. That's why we outlaw things like murder, but allow for insanity defenses. And it drives the current national debate about abortion.

The upshot here, as I see it, is that the Parole Board had discretion to recommend pardon and take a least a small step toward reconciliation between the white and black communities of Mississippi, which still remain deeply separated from one another in many ways. And the governor is not bound by law to oppose the pardon. So the pardon clearly can happen. Don't we teach our kids to say they are sorry when they do something wrong? And to put it bluntly, would we teach them differently if the person wronged were dead? Would we tell them not to apologize to their relatives or friends?

This turn of events troubles me even more deeply because this debate is all so unnecessary. Kennard should be pardoned--and other avenues of redress can be explored too. You can be sure that tonight, when I attend my law school's annual BLSA luncheon, this will be a topic of conversation--which illustrates how significant an event this parole denial is.

P.S.--At least I can say that I am proud that Mr. Kennard's case is being championed by the Center on Wrongful Convictions at my alma mater, Northwestern University School of Law. Lawyers get a lot of criticism, but in this case I am glad to be affiliated with an institution that is doing the right thing for the sake of doing the right thing.


biff said...

I just cannot understand how the South can be so deeply religious, and yet so deeply racist at the same time.

Anonymous said...

Igots, if you can't understand it, then yougots to read the excellent new book, "Sundown Towns," by James Loewen, a comprehensive, careful study of the "Sundown Towns" (as in "N------ don't let the sun set on your head here in ____________").

The points the book makes over and over are that (1) there were THOUSANDS of these towns in nearly every state except for one region, (2) they continued until quite recently (and, in fact, some de facto sundown towns may still be in place today), and (3) nearly all were in THE NORTH, not the south.

This would be an outstanding book for anyone in law school. Anyone who thinks that deep and abiding white racism is unique to the South isn't paying very close attention.

biff said...

I wonder if there is a good quantitative way to measure racism. Then we'll be able to see which regions of the country are the worst.

Gregory W. Bowman said...

Nice debate; thanks very much to both of you for commenting. The North is certainly not blameless--during and after the Civil War there was (and still is) overt and covert racism there too. And places like Chicago and DC remain extremely segregated in many ways. Yet having lived in Chicago, DC, and Mississippi, I can tell you that the latter is less integrated racially. There's so much more to be said on this; maybe another post is in order.

Anonymous said...

Igots, how about the housing segregation measure? And the corresponding percentage of students of each race who attend nearly monochromatic schools (Milwaukee and Detroit #1 and #2 on both scales)? See Jonathan Kozol's stupendous book "Shame of a Nation."

I live in a very diverse, older, close-in neighborhood in capital city in a northern state. Yet, there is one subgroup conspicuously absent from this nice old neighborhood with its fine homes, low traffic, shaded streets, etc: white families with children.

So we've got gay childless couples, straight childless couples, and multi-generation old-line black families from the days when this was the neighborhood where the black elites lived. And white children are born here sometimes too--and then, surprise, they move to the suburbs as soon as pre-school starts, moving away from our nice shady streets and parks and into wildly overpriced McMansions and expensive and gridlocked commutes.

Think that maybe this northern racism has something to do with why the elementary school and HS near my house are virtually all-black? Though blacks constitute only 28% of the population in the metro region?

biff said...

Yes, de facto segregation continues to exist everywhere, not just in the South. Perhaps it's time for the news media to start reporting more about the fundamental racial problems that continue to exist everywhere in this country, instead of individual instances of blatant racism in the South.