Dr. Rodney Bennett breaks barrier as first black president of Southern Miss

HATTIESBURB, MS — More than 50 years ago, the president of an all-white university in Mississippi went to such great lengths to keep a black man from enrolling as a student, that he had the man arrested on trumped up charges and sent to prison.

Treated harshly behind the walls of the historic Parchman penitentiary, that man — a Korean War veteran — was forced to work on their cotton plantation until he collapsed from the pangs of cancer and later died.

That man was Clyde Kennard.

Not many are familiar with Kennard‘s fight for admission into what is now the University of Southern Mississippi. But Dr. Rodney Bennett is, and he’s grateful for trailblazers like Kennard, and for the opportunity he now has been given.

On Feb. 7, Dr. Bennett became the first African-American to head the historically white university some 58 years after Kennard’s initial application to Mississippi Southern — as Southern Miss was then known — was rejected by the school’s president William D. McCain.

McCain likely knew that as a rule, no convicted felon could be admitted to any of Mississippi’s all-white colleges.

Like Kennard, Bennett never set out to make a historical statement. He does however, realize what his prodigious feat means to the black community.

“I certainly appreciate and recognize the reality that comes as a result of this,” Bennett said. “And I’m grateful for the IHL Board of Trustees and Commissioner for having the courage, if you will, to put in place the person they thought was best for the opportunity, and that person happened to be me. And I have become, whether I wanted to or not, a sort of role model for young people of every stripe to seek out…and to have the confidence that they too can accomplish the goals they have for their lives.”

Bennet is a Tennessee native, and prior to his position at Southern Miss, he was vice president for student affairs at the University of Georgia in Athens. Early in his career, he worked at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C. and Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro. Bennett holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Middle Tennessee State and an educational doctorate from Tennessee State University.

Ed Blakeslee, president of the College Board that oversaw Bennett’s selection at Southern Miss, said it was Bennett’s qualifications and experience in money management that made him attractive to the committee.

“It wasn’t his skin color,” said Blakeslee, who is white. “We selected Dr. Bennett for his leadership abilities. We understand the significance [of race], but it wasn’t a factor in the decision. He is a man of integrity.”

Dr. Bennett said his primary objective at Southern Miss is to improve their financial standing and recruit new students. But his focus shifted drastically when three days after becoming the school’s 10th commander-in-chief, an EF4 tornado devastated the college town of Hattiesburg and much of the university’s campus.

“It was a devastating experience,” Bennett said. “Prior to this, I had never seen up close and personal the aftermath of a tornado. And until you’ve seen it firsthand, you can not imagine what it’s like. Television and newspapers put it out there, but you can’t really embrace it and appreciate it like you can when you’re living it every day and you’re standing in the middle of it. It was horrible.

But the best part of it was we didn’t have any injuries or deaths and we’re thankful for that. The things we lost can be replaced. But our focus was there was no loss of life. That’s what kept us going every day.”

Damages at Southern Miss are estimated between $20 – $30 million, with at least six buildings on campus suffering extensive damage.