I've had the good fortune of getting to know Derek R. King thanks to Twitter. (@derekrking2) I was intrigued to find out that he's a Scottish man writing about the U.S. Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. I wanted to know what drew him to this tumultuous period of US history and felt that his outsider perspective might be very beneficial. He graciously agreed to let me send him a barrage of questions, which he answered very well.
I hope you'll be as fascinated by this as I am. Derek recently did a radio interview with Cyrus Webb, who loved the book so much he gave it a 5 star review on Amazon and went so far as to say it should be on Oprah's book list! Congratulations, Derek! I agree that this is a very important book on a man who should be more widely known than he is. Thank you Derek for sharing your passion and extensive research with us!
SJ: I'm sorry to say that I'm an American and I've never heard of Clyde Kennard. How did you, a Scotsman, first find out about him?
DK: I was searching key events in the 60's around 2000. I came across the name Medgar Evers, I'd never heard it before. So I started reading, digging, and researching all manner of things. One name kept cropping up in books and periodicals I read about Medgar, but the name generally only received a couple of paragraphs or a couple of pages, I guess subconsciously at first I decided to dig deeper, to see what I could find out about this Clyde Kennard.
That part of the journey began in November 2007. Of course much of the historical and societal information I had accumulated about Medgar also applied to Mr Kennard.
Over the period of this project my initial six pages of notes on Clyde Kennard grew into the book I have today, 11 years later. I've accumulated a private library of 104 books as well as various periodicals from the 1950 and 60's together with research materials from the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. So I've been kept busy.
Anyway, the first few years 2000- 2007, were spent reading pretty much all I could get my hands on, from the likes of Myrlie Evers, Hodding Carter III, Neil McMillan, John Dittmer, Juan Williams, among others and authors on the other side of the debate, segregationists Carl Putman (Race and Reason), Judge Tom Brady (Black Monday) and Erle Johnston to name a few.
I never contemplated that I'd be writing a book though, it was simply something to keep the grey cells going.
SJ: What drew you to the US Civil Rights struggle?
DK: I've been interested in civil rights for many years but only started to hone in on the various movements in the US during the 1950-60's around 2000 and it really took off when I learned of Medgar Evers. That period was, in my view, a time of extremes. I'm sure we've all seen the flashpoint photographs, Little Rock Central High, the firebombed Freedom Ride bus, Ole Miss at the time of James Meredith's entry and, of course, Selma. I found the extremes of those times interesting from the standpoint of what scenarios had given rise to what I perceived as such overly violent responses.
SJ: In many ways, I think a non-US citizen is better poised to tell a story like this. At least, I'd
like to think you'd be free from inherent and unconscious biases that we here might face. Do you believe you possess any insights, as an outsider, that someone living here might not see?
DK: I do believe coming from a different country and different culture, and knowing so little about the topic gave me a unique unfettered perspective, no predetermined ideas as it were. It also presented a huge responsibility and obligation to make sure I presented a balanced account of both the debate and events. Of course the unsaid challenge is, I believe, to avoid viewing histories like this through the prism of 21st century sensibilities, awareness and political correctness. It's kind of like walking a tightrope.
SJ: What is the most shocking thing you learned in your research?
DK: There were a few. One, the lengths that state actors would go to in those times in an attempt to stall or circumnavigate SCOTUS decisions. Another, that a state would create an agency whose sole purpose was to protect it from federal encroachment and, in essence, spy on its citizens, in particular those who sought benefit from SCOTUS decisions among other things.
While these were a little shocking, nothing, and I mean nothing, comes close to the shock and disbelief I experienced learning about the Emmett Till case. I do still find that quite upsetting on various levels. The violence perpetrated against this young man, that the accused were acquitted in trial in Mississippi, but a few months later sold their story to Look magazine, and recounted it in some graphic detail too. But because of prevailing laws there could be no retrial.
SJ: Thank goodness for the internet! Was it difficult to research an obscure figure from US history from all the way in Scotland?
DK: I don't believe so, as I mentioned a little earlier I've accumulated a private library of 104 books as well as various periodicals from the 1950 and 60's together with research materials from the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, which is a fantastic resource and wonderfully curated.
In addition, I also think the location helped maintain that unfettered perspective, we discussed.
SJ: It's no secret that the US still struggles with racism. Although it took you 10 years to complete the book, it's still very timely. In your experience, is this type of racism a large scale issue in your country as well?
DK: While I don't believe so, we're not without our challenges here. The population demographics do vary significantly across the UK and there are areas where there are tensions.
SJ: What is your greatest aspiration for this book?
DK: My greatest aspiration? That would be a movie of Clyde's life and the main contextual parts of the book. But as that's unlikely to happen, I'll settle for Clyde's story being more widely known, appreciated and that he is both recognized and acknowledged.
SJ: Are you working on a new book? If so, can you tell us anything about it?
DK: I've had a few thoughts. I have enough research material I didn't use so I could do another, but 10 years is a long time. Someone suggested I do book of photographs I've taken, I do a bit of photography as well, so that's a possibility. I'm also gathering together poetry I've written, so there is a possibility that will be next.
SJ: If there's someone reading this interview who doesn't read the book, what would you want them to know about Clyde Kennard?
DK: I think there may be those who'd prefer to let sleeping dogs lie and that subject matter like this should be left alone, but I think the importance of this story is that it demonstrates time is a great healer and that it is never too late to seek justice for those who may not be able to do so themselves.
In terms of Clyde himself, his utter determination and belief that he would be admitted to MSC and his unflinching belief that the then college president McCain was innocent in what was happening to Clyde during those admission attempts. Of course we now know that McCain delivered speeches for the Sovereignty Commission's Speakers Bureau.
The inspiration he provided to others, Clyde's unsuccessful attempts to enroll would be closely followed by Raylawni Branch, who knew Clyde well, she along with Gwendolyn Armstrong being the first African Americans, to enter University of Southern Mississippi in 1965.
Lastly, it has to be the determination of Clyde's team in 2006, too many to name individually here, but key were Barry Bradford, Professor Steven Drizin and investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell to name but three. For five months or so they, repeatedly knocked on the door trying to secure a just outcome for Clyde Kennard, they could have so easily been put off, but they stuck with it.
SJ: I'm a fiction writer. I would feel so much pressure while writing a biography about someone I hadn't known. Did you have any anxieties about writing this book, or was the research so compelling that you just had to tell the story?
DK: Ultimately, the more I researched and discovered about Clyde, the more determined and passionate I became about telling of his journey and how his efforts inspired others.
There was of course some self inflicted pressure, to do thorough research, to seek multiple corroborations from competent sources, to be impartial and balanced and of course to represent Clyde, as much as possible, through his own words and deeds and through those who knew him.
To a large extent Clyde's story told itself, the trick for me was to present it in the context of the time he lived in which I felt was critical to give his story meaning. The challenge with that, of course, was striking a balance, between Clyde and context. I think I got that right, but readers will be the real judges.
Find out more about Clyde Kennard and the author, Derek R. King at the website.