08/20/2013 05:12 pm ET Updated Oct 20, 2013

Civil Rights -- Hard, Bitter, Astonishing, Serene, Uncompleted

A new film "The Butler" has caught America's attention. It is a splendid piece of cinematic art I wish everybody could see. It opens previously closed doors powerfully and poignantly. Let me add that it made me think of a number of martyrs who made huge personal sacrifices for freedom. Indeed, one of its basic themes is "race relations," which it approaches with hope instead of despair. It got me thinking about people who made great personal sacrifices in the cause of human awakening and freedom.

One was Claude Kennard, whom you may not instantly recall. But he literally died in the cause of human freedom. He wasn't granted the stunning, shattering death of some well-known martyrs. Death by cancer came in a Chicago hospital after he was transferred from Mississippi's toughest labor camp. Efforts to get hilm hospitalized had been undertaken for two years, culminating in a fiinal plea to the Mississippi Supreme Court.

Earlier Kennard's repeated attempts to enroll in the University of Southern Mississippi at Hattiesburg fired angry opposition by segregationists. A veteran of World War II and Korea, Kennard was a true believer in justice. He was subjected to persecution because he dared to want an education equal to that of a white man.

The first time I heard of Kennard was when he was sentenced to a maximum term on charges of stealing five bags of chicken feed. I remember reading the news account. I presumed there was some technical mistake in the transmission of the story. I couldn't believe it. Kennard's human predicament broke through walls and buttresses of my ignorance and unawareness. For me he was becoming a symbol of unjust suffering. Our society seemingly offered him neither relief nor mercy.

At a national conference on race and religion in Chicago, I heard from a Jet magazine reporter about Kennard's final agony as well as efforts to alleviate it. A few months later I was driving through northern California when I heard Kennard's name on my car radio.

He was dead. I guess that I will never be altogether free of my identification with his fate. Consciousness of his pain digs into my conscience whenever I feel the time has come to be easygoing about human and civil rights. In other words, freedom can't exist without the blood of martyrs. Clyde Kennard is, to put it simply, a saint of freedom. So, in my opinion, it is gravely important that he not be forgotten.

This means that those of us who live must carefully and precisely see that Kennard's place in history will be carefully and expertly documented. A rising wave of militant youth needs to encase him within their hearts. Ours is an arc of heralded progress in human and civil rights -- hard, bitter, astonishing, serene, uncompleted. Clyde Kennard is a man whose life story haunts me.

In a black art exhibition I see
Aunt Jemima
Photo of a lynch mob
Lacerated black man in a pool of blood
Black Jesus crucified
A teenage black youth
Hemmed in by tree branches
Steel sipikes, fire, a wall

Painful memories can be cruel
Can we also let them be
signs of hope and freedom?