CHARLIE MITCHELL: Apologies can't erase past but change the future

If apologies don't matter, why were our mamas so insistent?

That question has come to mind since Gov. Haley Barbour has declined to sign a pardon for Clyde Kennard – God rest his soul – a black veteran who had the temerity to believe in 1960 that after putting his life on the line for his nation in Korea, he should at least be able to take college courses near his home in Hattiesburg.

Barbour has not denied the injustice.

He knows, he said, that Kennard got a raw deal at the hands of Klan types who persecuted Kennard even after he was rejected for admission to what was then Mississippi Southern College.

The Klan was big on setting up “troublemakers,” making them appear insane or criminal. It wasn't enough for them to win. They had to destroy anyone acting “uppity.”

First, Kennard was stopped for “reckless driving” and, lo and behold, charged with illegal possession of liquor when a bottle was found in his vehicle. Those charges were thrown out by the Mississippi Supreme Court, perhaps believing the widespread notion the whisky was planted.

A later charge did stick. Kennard was convicted of purchasing $25 worth of stolen chicken feed and got a seven-year prison term.

He didn't finish it. In those days, horribly ill inmates were released, in part to allow the state to avoid the expense of providing medical care. Kennard had colon cancer and died in 1963.

Since then, the only witness in the chicken feed case, Johnny Lee Roberts, admitted that he had lied, and last week a Forrest County judge officially exonerated Kennard of the charge.

It was the Center on Wrongful Convictions of the Northwestern University School of Law in Chicago that studied the Kennard case and started the effort to more definitively clear his name.

In response, the Mississippi Legislature passed resolutions honoring Kennard. Barbour met with the Kennard family and proclaimed a Clyde Kennard Day in March.

He stopped short on signing a pardon, however, deeming it pointless.

For one thing, Barbour said, the only tangible result of any pardon is restoration of voting privileges. Because Kennard has been deceased for 43 years, that's not relevant.

He also said he didn't know of any Mississippi governor who had issued a posthumous pardon – and he hasn't issued any, period.

The governor joined the exoneration petition in Forrest County, but has been steadfast against a pardon, pointing out that nine governors have occupied the mansion since Kennard was framed. “If he were living, I think he would have already been pardoned,” Barbour said.

Precedent for Barbour

There's precedent for the governor's position. Last year on the day jury selection started in the trial of Edgar Ray Killen for his role in the 1964 murders of three civil rights workers, two members of the U.S. Senate, Democrat Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Republican George Allen of Virginia, introduced a resolution officially apologizing for lynchings in America.

Mississippi's delegates to the Senate, Republicans Trent Lott and Thad Cochran, declined to join with their colleagues, almost all of whom signed the resolution. It was based on the fact that the Senate had twice failed to pass House-approved federal anti-lynching legislation in the first part of the last century.

Cochran said he wasn't in the Senate and couldn't see apologizing for votes in which he had no voice. Lott answered the question with a question about whether the Senate should also apologize for not fixing Social Security.

Implicit, then, is that Barbour regarding Kennard and Cochran and Lott regarding lynching have pointed out that signing their names would merely be symbolic.

Parting with our moms

And that's where they part company with our moms, and probably theirs, too.

Because if you pinch your sister and get caught, odds are your mom is going to make you say you're sorry. It doesn't make the pinch hurt less. The harm is not erased. But moms know – if governors and senators don't – that the strongest effect of apologies can be on the future.

The student body of the University of Southern Mississippi is among organizations that have asked Barbour to pardon Kennard.

A pardon would tell those students something they could actually put to practical use for the rest of their lives. It would tell them, definitively, no one should have had to face what Kennard did – and it's something their state will no longer tolerate.

Charlie Mitchell is executive editor of The Vicksburg Post. Write to him at P.O. Box 821668, Vicksburg, MS 39182, or e-mail post@vicksburg.com.

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