William Stetson Kennedy was an American author and human rights activist. One of the pioneer folklore collectors during the first half of the 20th century, he is remembered for having infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in the 1940s, exposing its secrets to authorities and the outside world. His actions lead to the 1947 revocation by the state of Georgia of the Klan's national corporate charter. Kennedy wrote or co-wrote ten books.
Biography and activities
Kennedy was named for a member of his mother's family, the hatter John Batterson Stetson. As a teenager, he began collecting folklore material while seeking "a dollar down and dollar a week" accounts for his father, a furniture merchant. While a student at the University of Florida, Kennedy befriended one of his professors, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings.
In 1937, he left the University of Florida to join the WPA Florida Writers' Project, and at the age of 21, was put in charge of folklore, oral history, and ethnic studies. As her supervisor, Kennedy traveled throughout Florida with African-American novelist and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston, visiting turpentine camps near Cross City and the Clara White Mission soup kitchen in Jacksonville. Hurston later chronicled these experiences in her book Mules and Men. The two were forced to travel separately because Jim Crow laws prohibited them from working together. Because of segregation laws operative in Florida at the time, "You could get killed lighting someone's cigarette", Kennedy told independent producer Barrett Golding. "Or shaking hands -- both colors, white and black." Hurston was not even allowed to enter the Federal Writers' Project office in Jacksonville through the front door and did most of her work from her home. Kennedy had a large hand in editing several volumes generated by the Florida project, including The WPA Guide to Florida: the Southernmost State (1939), from the famed WPA American Guide Series, A Guide to Key West, and The Florida Negro (part of a series directed by Sterling Brown). Kennedy also studied at New College for Social Research in New York and at the Sorbonne in Paris.
Kennedy's first book, Palmetto Country, based on unused material collected during his WPA period, was published in 1942 as a volume in the American Folkways Series edited by Erskine Caldwell. Legendary folklorist Alan Lomax has said of the book, "I very much doubt that a better book about Florida folklife will ever be written." To which Kennedy's self-described "stud buddy", Woody Guthrie, added, "[Palmetto Country] gives me a better trip and taste and look and feel for Florida than I got in the forty-seven states I've actually been in body and tramped in boot." The Library of Congress has placed the recordings and pictures from the project online. Kennedy has been called "one of the pioneer folklore collectors during the first half of the 20th century", and his work is a keystone of the library's presentation.
In 1942 Kennedy accepted a position as Southeastern Editorial Director of the CIO's Political Action Committee in Atlanta, Georgia, in which capacity he wrote a series of monographs dealing with the poll tax, white primaries, and other restrictions on voting that delimited democracy throughout the South. Kept from military service by a bad back, Kennedy resolved to perform his patriotic duties in Georgia by infiltrating both the Klan and the Columbians, an Atlanta-based neo-Nazi organization.
After World War II, Kennedy worked as a journalist for the liberal newspaper PM. His stories appeared in newspapers and magazines such as the New York Post and The Nation, for which he was for a time Southern correspondent, and he fed information about discrimination to columnist Drew Pearson. To bring the effects of Jim Crow in the South to public awareness, he authored a number exposés of the Klan and racist Jim Crow system over the course of his life, including Southern Exposure (1946), Jim Crow Guide to the USA (1959), and After Appomattox: How the South Won the War (1995). During the 1950s, Kennedy's books, considered too incendiary to be published in the USA, were published in France by the existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre and subsequently translated into other languages. Kennedy coined the term "Frown Power", when he started a campaign with that name in the 1940s, which simply encouraged people to pointedly frown when they heard bigoted speech.
In 1947, Kennedy provided information - including secret codewords and details of Klan rituals - to the writers of the Superman radio program, leading popular journalist Stephen J. Dubner and University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt, in their 2005 book Freakonomics, to dub Kennedy "the greatest single contributor to the weakening of the Ku Klux Klan". The result was a series of 16 episodes in which Superman took on the Klan. Kennedy intended to strip away the Klan's mystique; and the trivialization of the Klan's rituals and codewords likely had a negative impact on Klan recruiting and membership.
In 1952, when Kennedy ran for governor of Florida, his friend and houseguest Woody Guthrie wrote a set of lyrics for a campaign song, "Stetson Kennedy". Kennedy says he became "the most hated man in Florida", and his home at Fruit Cove near Lake Beluthahatchee was firebombed by rightists and many of his papers destroyed, causing him to leave the country and go to live in France. There, in 1954, Kennedy wrote his sensational exposé of the workings of the Klan, I Rode With The Ku Klux Klan (later reissued as The Klan Unmasked), which was published by Jean-Paul Sartre. Questioned in later years about the accuracy of his account, Kennedy later said he regretted not having included an explanatory introduction to the book about how the information in it was obtained. The director of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress Peggy Bulger, the subject of whose doctoral thesis was Kennedy's work as a folklorist, commented in a 2007 interview with The Associated Press, "Exposing their folklore – all their secret handshakes, passwords and how silly they were, dressing up in white sheets ... If they weren't so violent, they would be silly."
A founding member and past president of the Florida Folklore Society, Kennedy was a recipient of the 1998 Florida Folk Heritage Award and the Florida Governor's Heartland Award. His contribution to the preservation and propagation of folk culture is the subject of a dissertation, "Stetson Kennedy: Applied Folklore and Cultural Advocacy" (University of Pennsylvania, 1992), by Peggy Bulger, who assumed the directorship of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress in 1999. Kennedy is also featured as one of the "Whistle Blowers", in Studs Terkel's book Coming of Age, published in 1995.
In 2005, Jacksonville residents attended a banquet in honor of Kennedy's life, and afterward a slide show with narration at Henrietta's Restaurant, located at 9th and Main Street in Springfield. This event was largely coordinated by Fresh Ministries. The slides included numerous pictures of his travels with author Zora Neale Hurston, and direct voice recordings which were later digitized for preservation.
In 2006, on November 24, the ninety-year-old Kennedy was wed to former city commissioner Sandra Parks at a Quaker-style ceremony at the William Bartram Center on the Bolles School in Jacksonville, Florida. Parks and Kennedy met when she came to Beluthahatchee to recruit him for the 40th anniversary observance of the St. Augustine civil rights marches which he participated in with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Kennedy, who admits to at least five previous marriages, commented, "I’ll leave it to the historians to decide how many times I’ve been married."
In 2007 St. Johns County declared a "Stetson Kennedy Day".
Kennedy participated in the two-day New Deal Resources: Preserving the Legacy conference at the Library of Congress on the occasion of the 75th Anniversary of the New Deal held in March 2008. Kennedy's most recent book, Grits and Grunts: Folkloric Key West, was issued by the Pineapple Press, in 2008.
In February 2009, Kennedy bequeathed his personal library to the Civic Media Center in Gainesville, Florida with which Kennedy had worked since the center's inception.
In October 2009, a first party for Kennedy's 93rd birthday was held at the Civic Media Center and the next day admirers flocked to Beluthahatchee Park, now a landmarked historic site, to celebrate Kennedy's birthday there.
In 2003, Friends of Libraries USA put Beluthahatchee on its national register of literary sites and, to commemorate the occasion, Arlo Guthrie gave a concert in Jacksonville.
In 2005 Kennedy received a life estate on his 4 acre homestead in Saint Johns County, and it is now Beluthahatchee Park.
The name "Beluthahatchee" describes a mythical "Florida Shangri-la, where all unpleasantness is forgiven and forgotten" according to Zora Neale Hurston.
Among the amenities are a picnic pavilion, canoe dock, access to the Beluthatchee Lake, and use of the two wildlife observation platforms. A “Mother Earth Trail” throughout the property is planned, as envisioned by the Kennedy Foundation. The Park’s perimeter is surrounded by a heavy canopy of native vegetation and the enclave provides a habitat for wildlife and continues to serve as a rookery and roosting place for many types of waterfowl and other birds.
Kennedy’s home will, upon his death, be open as a museum and archive and offer educational exhibits and whatnot, primarily about Woody Guthrie and William Bartram in addition to Kennedy himself, and will be operated by the Kennedy Foundation which will share office space in an adjacent home with the William Bartram Scenic and Historic Highway corridor group. A log cabin that's in the park may serve as a caretaker residence while the fourth building there may house an Artist-in-Residence through the Florida Folklife program.
The park is part of a 70 acre tract that Kennedy purchased in 1948, recorded restrictive covenants setting aside land in perpetuity as a wildlife refuge, and the following year subdivided, subsequently selling all but his own 4 acre parcel.
Critical assessments from his peers
In 1999, a freelance historian, Ben Green, alleged that Kennedy falsified or misrepresented portions of I Rode With The Ku Klux Klan. During the 1990s, Green had enlisted Kennedy's help while researching a book about the still unsolved 1951 Florida fire-bombing murders of black Civil Rights activists Harry T. Moore and his wife Harriette. Green's book about the Moores, Freedom Never Dies, was published in 1999. Green and Kennedy, quarreled over what Kennedy considered Green's too sympathetic portrayal of the FBI. Green, whose book is generally disparaging of Kennedy, claimed to have examined Kennedy's archives at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem and in Atlanta and concluded that a number of interviews, portrayed in I Rode With The Ku Klux Klan as having been conducted undercover, had in fact been done openly, and that racist material amassed by Kennedy had also been openly obtained from mail subscriptions to the Klan and similar groups and not surreptitiously, as implied. Most seriously, Green accused Kennedy of concealing the existence of a collaborator, referred to as "John Brown" (a pseudonym probably chosen in honor of the 19th-century abolitionist John Brown), whom Green alleged was in fact responsible for the most daring of Kennedy's undercover revelations. Green also interviewed Georgia State Prosecutor Dan Duke, whom he reported as denying having worked with Kennedy as closely the latter had claimed. "Duke agreed that Kennedy 'got inside of some [Klan] meetings' but openly disputed Kennedy's dramatized account of their relationship. 'None of that happened,' [Duke] told Green", according to Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt in their New York Times Magazine column of January 8, 2006. In the same column, Levitt and Dubner also quote Jim Clark, a professor at the University of Central Florida and co-author of a PBS television documentary based on Green's book, as saying that "[Kennedy] built a national reputation on many things that didn't happen". Jim Clark and Ben Green collaborated on the script of Freedom Never Dies: The Story of Harry T. Moore, based on Green's book and partially funded by the Freedom Forum. Peggy Bulger, on the other hand, stated that when she interviewed him: "[Sheriff] Duke laughed about the way The Klan Unmasked was written. But he added that Kennedy 'didn't do it all, but he did plenty,' she said. In a letter to Kennedy dated July 27, 1946, Georgia Gov. Ellis Arnall wrote: 'You have my permission to quote me as making the following observation: Documentary evidence uncovered by Stetson Kennedy has facilitated Georgia's prosecution of the Ku Klux Klan.'"
Freakonomics authors Dubner and Levitt had included a favorable summary of Kennedy's anti-Klan activities with special emphasis on the events recounted in I Rode with the Ku Klux Klan in the 2005 edition of their bestselling book. In the revised 2006 edition, after being contacted by Green, they retracted their earlier admiration, claiming that they had been "hoodwinked". The allegations in their retraction were swiftly repeated by the business journal Forbes in a review of the revised edition of Freakonomics: "It turns out that Kennedy doesn't quite live up to his own legend. In fact, he had exaggerated his story for decades and credited himself with actions taken by other people".
Green's insinuations are contested by scholars, who emphasize that Kennedy never concealed that he had protected his colleagues' identities and maintain that Green either misread or did not really read the material at the Schomburg Center. Peggy Bulger, the head of the American Folklife Division of the Library of Congress, who wrote her Ph. D. dissertation on Kennedy and interviewed him extensively, maintains that Kennedy was always candid with her and others about his combination of two narratives into one in I Rode With the Ku Klux Klan: "His purpose was to expose the Klan to a broad reading audience and use their folklore against them, which he did." In a letter to the editor of New York Times Magazine (published on January 22, 2006) Bulger accused Dubner and Levitt of "holding Stetson Kennedy responsible for the inadequacies of their own research":
It's preposterous. I have worked with Stetson Kennedy for more than 30 years, conducting almost 100 in-depth interviews with both Kennedy and his contemporaries. Your writers use one footnote from my dissertation as "evidence," yet Dubner admitted to me that they never read the whole thing. This is "data"? What is the smoking gun here?
In the same issue of the magazine a letter of protest from famed oral historian Studs Terkel affirms that "With half a dozen Stetson Kennedys, we can transform our society into one of truth, grace and beauty.... The thing is, Stetson did what he set out to do .... He did get help. He should have been much more up-front. But he certainly doesn't deserve this treatment".
In his own response (published in the Jacksonville, Florida Folio Weekly, January 27, 2006) Kennedy pulled no punches:
The hidden story behind these hidden story guys is that is was a put-up, hatchet job. Freakonomics co-author, Stephen Dubner, admitted to me that it was Ben Green, author of the book about the Harry T. Moore assassinations, who made the call. And, why would he have it in for me? We once had a contract to collaborate on the Moore book and split the byline; but instead we split, because I was convinced that lawmen at every level were involved in every phase of the murders, while he was bent not just upon whitewash but on praising the G-men for a "stellar performance".
I must say that I am not at all comfortable about being in Freakonomics, anyway. I took the authors into my home on the basis of their assertion that what they were after was the economics of the Klan. The next thing I knew, they sent me a pre-publication copy of their sketch of Klan history, and I was horrified to see that it was a rehash of the Klan's very own "Birth of A Nation" version. I did some detailed editing, but they chose to ignore it — just as they did all the documentation I gave them on my infiltration of Klans all over the South, all by my lonesome.
I trust that readers took note of the book's attack upon Head Start, which with all its faults, is a godsend to many. Still worse is the book's suggestion that the way to decrease the crime rate is to decrease the black birthrate via abortion. Without reference to what American does to its black and tan kids, that is sheer racism. There is too much evil going on in the world for me, going on 90, to take time out to haggle with anyone about which agent covered which Klan meeting 50 years ago.
In 2006, The Florida Times-Union, after extensive research, published an article "KKK Book Stands Up to Claim of Falsehood" (January 29, 2006) substantiating the general accuracy of Kennedy's account of infiltrating the Klan, while acknowledging that (as he himself never denied) he had made use of dramatic effects and multiple narratives in the book I Rode with the Ku Klux Klan.
David Pilgrim of the Jim Crow Museum at Ferris State University commented:
Green claimed, after months of readings Kennedy's field notes, that he was unable to substantiate many of the claims in The Klan Unmasked. He even insinuated that Kennedy had fabricated his true role. Kennedy, in his 90s, fought to salvage his reputation and protect his legacy. He acknowledges that some accounts in his books were actually derived from the actions of co-infiltrators or others sympathetic with undermining the Klan. Though I recognize the importance of integrity in a person's work, I am nevertheless not especially troubled if Southern Exposure or The Klan Unmasked includes accounts from others afraid to speak for themselves. Nor am I bothered that Kennedy embellished his role. Infiltrating the Klan was an act of great courage, and the information in the books and on the radio shows led to the arrests of some Klansmen, the derailing of domestic terrorist acts, and the unpopularity of the Klan organization. That is good enough for me. I encourage readers to watch this short video [(no longer) on Youtube] which chronicles the life and work of Kennedy.
The Jim Crow Museum staff periodically trains docents to work in the facility. When I facilitate this training I have the students read Kennedy's book, Jim Crow Guide: The Way It Was (1959). The book is a mock guide dripping with bitter sarcasm; nevertheless, it is a historically sound account of life under Jim Crow segregation.
Death and Memorials
Kennedy died on August 27, 2011 at Baptist Medical Center South in Jacksonville, Florida, where he had been in palliative care for several days.
Kennedy's stated wishes were that upon his death there be a party held rather than a funeral; therefore, a celebration of Kennedy's life was held on October 1, 2011 (four days before Kennedy's 95th birthday) at Kennedy's homestead, Beluthahatchee Park. Several hundred kin, friends, and admirers gathered for the events which commenced with an hour of music performed by many well-known artists of pieces among which were several written by Kennedy’s friend Woody Guthrie, who composed many songs at Beluthahatchee, including a number about Kennedy, e.g., "Beluthahatchee Bill". The music culminated with all present singing Guthrie’s "This Land Is Your Land", which was followed by an hour of eulogies. Then all present walked down to Lake Beluthahatchee and watched as Kennedy’s ashes were scattered thereon from a canoe by his daughter.
^ a b c "Author Stetson Kennedy, whose writings exposed the KKK.s workings in the 1940s, dies at 94". The Washington Post. Retrieved August 16, 2011.
^ a b "Florida author, known for infiltrating Klan, dies". The Gainesville Sun. Retrieved August 28, 2011.
^ Stetson Kennedy, interviewed February 2002 by Barrett Golding on "The Sound of 1930s Florida Folk Life" on National Public Radio.
^ "New Georgia Encyclopedia: Columbians. Retrieved August 4, 2011.
^ "Stetson Kennedy" entry in New Georgia Encyclopedia.
^ "Hospital trying to make Kennedy comfortable". Historic City news. Retrieved August 27, 2011.
^ Frown Pow'r, a garage-rock band based out of Little Rock, Arkansas, borrowed their name from Stetson Kennedy's famous anti-bigotry movement.
^ An entire chapter of Freakonomics is devoted to the "contrarian" thesis that in the 20th century the Ku Klux Klan was not as violent as it had formerly been and, in fact, had acted paradoxically as a stabilizing influence on race relations in the American South.
^ In August 2008, Penn Jillette described Kennedy's part in the story of how "Superman came very close to destroying the Ku Klux Klan". See "Penn Says: Superman and the KKK". Retrieved 2008-10-16.
^ The song was later set to music by Billy Bragg and recorded by Bragg and Jeff Tweedy's band Wilco on the album Mermaid Avenue Vol. II.
^ a b Patton, Charlie. (January 29, 2006.) "KKK Book Stands Up to Claim of Falsehood". The Florida Times-Union. Retrieved August 29, 2011.
^ "Stetson Kennedy Official Website — Kennedy, Parks Wed In Weekend Ceremony – From the St. Augustine Record – November 29, 2006", Retrieved 2011-10-11
^ "Kennedy lived to be 94 years-old". Historic City News. Retrieved August 27, 2011.
^ "Legacy of social justice". St Augustine Record. Retrieved August 4, 2011.
^ Selections of the conference are available for viewing online on a Library of Congress webcast.
^ "CMC opens new locale; will be given author's collection". Gainesville.com. Retrieved August 28, 2011.
^ Bridget Murphy. (October 5, 2009.) "Admirers flock to Stetson Kennedy's 93rd birthday: he can't prove he's made a difference, but he can prove he's made friends, he said." The Florida Times-Union. Retrieved August 28, 2011.
^ "The Orlando Sentinel — Klan buster Stetson Kennedy left legendary Florida legacy", Retrieved 2011-10-11
^ a b "Saint John's County — Beluthahatchee Park", Retrieved 2011-08-04
^ "Florida Historical Markers Programs - Marker: St. Johns", Retrieved 2011-08-29
^ "Florida Folklife Program". Florida Division of Historical Resources. Retrieved August 4, 2011.
^ a b Dubner, Stephen J. and Steven D. Levitt. (January 8, 2006.) "Hoodwinked?". The New York Times. Retrieved on August 29, 2011.
^ production credits for Freedom Never Dies: The Story of Harry T. Moore
^ Freedom Never Dies: The Story of Harry T. Moore
^ Bulger, Peggy A.. "Hoodwinked?". letter to the editor, New York Times Magazine.
^ Stetson Kennedy's response is reproduced on the website of the Association for Cultural Equity.
^ (August 27, 2011.) "Jacksonville author, civil rights activist Stetson Kennedy dead at 95. The Florida Times Union. Retrieved August 27, 2011.
^ "Stetson Kennedy October 5th 1916 - August 27th 2011". Stetson Kennedy's Official Website. Retrieved August 28, 2011.
^ "The Florida Times Union — Stetson Kennedy's life celebrated at Beluthahatchee", Retrieved 2011-10-11