I can feel Nina Simone these days.
At the height of the civil rights movement, Simone, known as the high priestess of soul, recorded a song titled “Mississippi Goddam.” In it, she sings of Black people battling their second-class status in a state in which whites viewed their oppression as an indispensable part of Southern culture.
Which probably explains why even today, when it comes to Black people, repentance has never been the way of things in places like Mississippi. Which also probably explains why its governor, Haley Barbour, can’t bring himself to break his perfect record of never issuing pardons — as if that’s something to be proud of — to grant one to a dead Black man. No matter that this Black man, Clyde Kennard, was set up by officials of that same state to be falsely convicted of a petty crime just so they could keep him out of an all-white college.
To good ol’ boys like Barbour, it’s far less important to clear the record of an unjustly convicted Black man than to further sully the records of the white-run system that wronged him.
Barbour recently announced that he wouldn’t be granting a posthumous pardon to Kennard, an Army veteran who was sentenced to seven years in prison in 1960 for stealing $25 worth of chicken feed. As it turns out, the Black man who actually stole the feed and named Kennard as an accessory lied under oath. This he admitted to the Jackson Clarion-Ledger more than 40 years later.
That was too late for Kennard, who died of cancer in 1963. Yet, you would think that it wouldn’t be too late for that state to formally acknowledge that it had wronged Kennard — a man whose real crime at the time, in the eyes of the racists who set him up, was to fight to integrate Mississippi Southern College, now the University of Southern Mississippi.
Kennard’s supporters want Barbour to do that by issuing a posthumous pardon, something that has been done — in fact, has been a no-brainer — in several other states and at the federal level.
But Barbour, it seems, isn’t budging. Through a spokesman, he essentially said that he has never pardoned anyone and doesn’t plan to start now. Besides, he says, since the man is dead, it would be an empty gesture.
All those reasons are making that Nina Simone song ring louder in my head.
First of all, Barbour’s explanation that he has never issued a pardon to anyone, alive or dead, is an excuse, not a justification. What someone has or hasn’t done in the past should have absolutely no bearing on doing the right thing in the present or in the future. What’s more is that issuing a posthumous pardon isn’t a matter of bucking some far-reaching legal precedent that could wind up before the Supreme Court. It is a simple matter of signing a piece of paper to clear a person’s record.
And this business about a posthumous pardon being an empty gesture is also a load of crap. Because while it might not help Kennard get his life back, it can certainly go a long ways towards helping a state like Mississippi make amends for its past, a past with a stench of racist violence and oppression that still tends to overpower the smell of the magnolias for which it is nicknamed. Part of its past also includes a segregationist spy agency, the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, that had considered framing or killing Kennard to keep him from enrolling in school.
But then again, I suspect Barbour doesn’t care about any of that.
This is, after all, a man who has refused to make the Council of Conservative Citizens — a group spawned by the racist White Citizens Councils — remove a photo of him from its web site in which he is shown smiling at one of its barbecues. The CCC is a group that in its newspaper, The Citizen Informer, publishes writers who rail against interracial marriage, who claim the Holocaust was a hoax and who wax about the Southern glory days of segregation.
I guess Barbour believes he has more to lose by offending his racist supporters than the supporters of Kennard, a civil rights hero who died fighting the kind of racism that CCC espouses.
Nina Simone wouldn’t be shocked. But Barbour should be ashamed of himself. Ashamed because it’s never too late to do the right thing, not just for the person who was wronged, but for the entity that wronged him.
Too bad the governor doesn’t get that. Or worse, isn’t trying to.
Tonyaa Weathersbee is an award-winning columnist for the Florida Times-Union and has appeared on Nightline and BET Tonight. This article was originally published May 10 on Black AmericaWeb.com and is reprinted by permission of the author.