108 cm x 91.4 cm (42 1/2 in. x 36 in.)
(Quincy, Massachusetts, 1924 - 2019, Santa Fe, New Mexico)
North America, American
Medium and Support:
Oil on canvas
Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin, Purchase through the Amon G. Carter Art Acquisition Fund and Archer M. Huntington Museum Fund, and made possible by generous support from Alessandra Manning-Dolnier and Kurt Dolnier in memory of Ruth Seay, Charles Irvin, Jeanne and Michael Klein, Anthony Meier, Fredericka and David Middleton, and an anonymous donor, 2015
"Honor Roll" refers to the academic distinction usually bestowed upon students who excel at school. In the context of this 1963 canvas, however, the phrase takes on profound implications. The canvas honors the bravery of seven young African American men, women, and children who were among the first to attempt to integrate schools in the south in the early 1960s. May Stevens renders their names in childlike lettering that looks like it was carved into a tree or wet cement, in the hope that we might remember them.
Stevens, a white artist, credits her passion for civil rights in part to the friendship she and her husband developed with Charles White, the virtuosic African American draftsman whose work is on view nearby. When Stevens first exhibited this painting at a New York gallery in 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. contributed a brief but powerful introduction to the catalogue that accompanied it: "The men and women who rode the Freedom Buses through Alabama, who walked in Montgomery, who knelt in prayer in Albany, who hold hands and sing We Shall Overcome Someday in the face of hostile mobs—their acts cry out for songs to be sung by them and pictures to be painted of them."
Who was Clyde Kennard?
Nineteen sixty-three was a watershed year in the history of school desegregation. During that year, James Meredith became the first African American to graduate from the University of Mississippi. May Stevens’ painting was likely inspired by the tragic story of his fellow freedom fighter Clyde Kennard, an unsung hero of the civil rights movement.
In the late 1950s, Kennard attempted to enroll at Mississippi Southern College for his final year of college in order to be close to his widowed mother and to help run her chicken farm. The FBI, local police, and Mississippi Southern College did everything they could to dissuade him from applying and referred to him as an “integration agitator.” When he remained undeterred and attempted to apply to the school for the third year in a row, they resorted to framing him for crimes he did not commit. In 1960, after ten minutes of deliberation, an all-white jury sentenced Kennard to seven years in high-security prison for stealing five bags of chicken feed, on the basis of testimony by an illiterate white teenager. Placed in a high-security prison, Kennard was forced to perform manual labor in spite of developing colon cancer.
Shocked by the travesty of his sentencing for a crime he did not commit and by the brutal physical labor he was being forced to endure, the NAACP and Medgar Evers took up Kennard’s case. In 1963, the governor of Mississippi released him for fear that he would become a martyr if he died in prison. Kennard died shortly thereafter, on July 4.