Blogs > Cliopatria > Begging Your Pardon in Mississippi's Killing Fields

May 5, 2006 8:52 am

Begging Your Pardon in Mississippi's Killing Fields

As background to the appeal for clemency in the case of Cory Maye, I looked up the data on both lynchings and state executions in Mississippi. The state's record for legal execution is rooted in its history of slavery. In 1818, George H. Harmon, a white man, was hung for"stealing a Negro." That was Mississippi's first known legal execution. Emancipation devaluated black lives and the state's been executing them with abandon ever since. Of its 794 known executions, 639 of them have been African American men and another 19 were African American women. Mississippi's death-rate under law is hardly less biased than its lynchings were. Between 1882 and 1968, 589 people were lynched in Mississippi. 539 of them were African Americans. The historical record simply doesn't give much confidence that an African American man will receive even-handed treatment in Mississippi's legal system. Yesterday's New York Times carried a story that could have even more chilling implications for any hope to save Cory Maye's life.

In 1955, Clyde Kennard applied to attend Mississippi Southern University at Hattiesburg. Under ordinary circumstances, it would have been a routine admission. Kennard had grown up in Mississippi and served honorably in the army from 1945 to 1952. In service, he was certified as a high school graduate. After his honorable discharge, Kennard completed three years as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago before returning to Mississippi. There, he hoped to finish his degree at Mississippi Southern University. Twice, he applied, in 1955 and 1958. Clyde Kennard was not admitted – not merely refused admission, but he and his family were pressured to withdraw the application, which became a matter of interest to the state's newly established State Sovereignty Commission. When he sought admission a third time, Kennard was arrested and convicted of illegal possession of whiskey and reckless driving. In 1960, he was convicted and sentenced to seven years in prison for stealing a $25 bag of chicken feed. In 1963, Governor Ross Barnett saved Mississippi taxpayers the expense of housing and feeding a dying man by releasing Kennard from prison. Six months later, he died of cancer in Chicago. Two years later, Mississippi Southern admitted its first African American students.

In 1998, when the files of the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission were opened, they revealed discussions of whether it was preferable to kill Clyde Kennard for his repeated applications at Mississippi Southern or to frame him. Subsequently, the witness who actually stole the chicken feed admitted that he had lied about Kennard having put him up to the job. By then, Mississippi Southern had named a building for him and begun observing"Clyde Kennard Day." Governor Haley Barbour issued the proclamation for it and now believes that Kennard was grievously"wronged." So, why does this case have implications for any hope to save Cory Maye's life? Governor Barbour's spokesman, Pete Smith, says that it makes no difference whether the state's parole board recommends a posthumous pardon for Clyde Kennard."The governor hasn't pardoned anyone, be it alive or deceased," said Mr. Barbour's spokesman."The governor isn't going to issue a pardon here." See also: Radley Balko's The Agitator.

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Robert KC Johnson - 5/5/2006

Barbour's behavior really is unfathomable here. In Mississippi, of all states, you'd think a governor would have to recognize the possibility of miscarriages of justice. And given the peculiar politics of this issue, with many conservatives championing Maye's cause, a pardon by Barbour could be finessed politically.

Jonathan Dresner - 5/5/2006


Ralph E. Luker - 5/5/2006

It wasn't until 1890 or so that lynching's victims became overwhelmingly black. It was practiced in the old West, after all, where there were relatively few African Americans. After 1890, lynching was increasingly, though never exclusively, a Southern phenomenon and its victims were increasingly, though never exclusively, African American. There were even the occasional white females who were lynched; and even the occasional African American lynch mobs.

Jonathan Dresner - 5/5/2006

Between 1882 and 1968, 589 people were lynched in Mississippi. 539 of them were African Americans

I find myself quite surprised to learn that almost one in 12 weren't African Americans; I'm sure there are some stories there.

On the pardon, obviously I'm in agreement with you on it. I'm quite struck, as I am with our President's veto-free record, by what it might mean for a chief executive to forego one of the most unique powers afforded him.

In the case of the President, I think the answer lies in the "signing statement" method, plus the consistent friendly majority.

In the case of the Governor, though, I can't imagine what it means: a faith in the system of justice so deep that any executive interference would be anathema? A distrust in humanity so profound that forgiveness must be withheld to all? Disintrest? Disapproval? Fear of a Pandora's Box of requests, once the first absolution is granted?

I think Governor Barbour has a great deal to answer for in this.