Stetson Kennedy

Stetson Kennedy (1916 – 2011) 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 led to the 1947 revocation by the state of Georgia of the Klan’s national corporate charter. Kennedy wrote or co-wrote ten books.

As a teenager, he began collecting folklore material while seeking ‘a dollar down and dollar a week’ accounts for his father, a furniture merchant. 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 due to Jim Crow laws. 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 African-American folklorist Sterling Brown).

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 social critic 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, in which capacity he wrote a series of monographs dealing with the poll tax, white primaries, and other restrictions on voting that limited 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 of exposés of the Klan and the 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 States, 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 were destroyed, causing him to move to 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 Sartre. Questioned in later years about the accuracy of his account, Kennedy later said that 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.’

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