Stetson Kennedy

A while back I was listening to Billy Bragg and Wilco singing long lost Woody Guthrie songs. One of them promoted a guy named Stetson Kennedy and suggested you write in his name on your ballot. Who, I wondered, is Stetson Kennedy and why is Woody Guthrie so interested in him?

Stetson Kennedy was named after the hat guy who was a distant ancestor. Born in Florida in 1916, Kennedy spent most of his life there. He was a maverick, a guy who looked around and said, “Something’s wrong here!” when everybody else was saying. “Wonderful world!” One wrong that Kennedy noticed early on was segregation, which was law in Florida.

Stetson Kennedy, circa 1947

Let me just insert a short history of Southern race relations here because Kennedy thought it vital that people understand that history. After the Civil War, the slaves were freed and the conquered Southern states put under martial law. This period, called Reconstruction, saw the election of black legislators and attempts to create a new society. But whites organized secret groups like the Ku Klux Klan to threaten and murder those who were building this new South. In Louisiana, hundreds of black and white Republicans were murdered before the election of 1868, so many that some parishes did not report a single Republican vote cast. Hundreds more were murdered in each of the former Confederate states. In every secession state, there was violent opposition to full enfranchisement of blacks in society. Not that there was much will in the North to see a fully integrated America. In 1876, the Democrats won a presidential election for the first time in twenty years. The Republicans wanted Rutherford Hayes to be President, so they made the Democrats an offer: give us the Presidency and we will end Reconstruction in the South. The deal was done; the Electoral College (Congress) announced another Republican president and federal troops left the South. Then southern whites moved to reverse all of the progress made by blacks in the previous decade and to construct a popular myth of the Lost Cause. This myth claimed that Reconstruction was a great disaster, that unlettered blacks and unscrupulous whites had joined to create corrupt governments full of waste and theft.

Stetson Kennedy fought against the myth of the Lost Cause all his life. Several of his books discuss the real Reconstruction and its achievements. Kennedy opposed all of the Jim Crow legislation that followed Reconstruction as whites asserted their dominance in southern society. From the 1890s on, Jim Crow laws laid out strict boundaries bewteen white and black. Whites and blacks could not sit together, go to the same restaurant, or stay in the same hotel. In movie theatres. blacks would sit in the balcony section (if they could get in) and whites in the regular seats. In addition, blacks were discouraged from voting by means of the poll tax and literacy tests. Blacks who insisted on voting then faced violence perpetrated by the KKK or other white groups.

Kennedy hated segregation and he hated the Lost Cause. He wrote about these issues in leaflets and spoke out whenever he could. Once, at the dinner table, one of Kennedy’s sisters said, “I believe you’d rather be with niggers than with us.” “I believe you’re right,” said Kennedy who left the table. He was never on speaking terms with anyone in his family again.

In 1937, Kennedy hired on with the WPA Writers’ Program. Zora Neale Hurston was a fellow member of the Florida project. The two of them collected folk songs and stories, not as a pair since it was forbidden for white and black to work together — in fact, Hurston couldn’t even enter the office of the Florida Writers’ Project by the front door and tended to work out of her home  — but they talked to black and white men and women and wrote down what they were told. Hurston called folklore the “pot liquor” of society, the essential cooked down juices of the different ingredients.

The WPA guide to Florida was completed in 1939. Although other states published volumes of folklore collected by the Writers’ Projects, Florida didn’t. (The collected materials are supposed to be open to scholars now.) Kennedy put together a book of his own, Palmetto Country, that was published in 1942. Along with Florida folklore, he took a run at the Lost Cause myth and Reconstruction lies. Among its readers was an appreciative Woody Guthrie who wrote Kennedy to tell him that he liked the book and was going to pay him a visit some day.

Kennedy had a piece of land where he lived that he called Beluthahatchee which he said was the Seminole for “Place of Peace” and maybe it is. Hurston compared it to Shangri-la, a place where “all unpleasantness is forgiven and forgotten”. Lots of people went through Beluthahatchee in the 1940s which became an oasis for writers, artists, and folks with a maverick streak. Woody Guthrie dropped by on a regular basis.

Stetson Kennedy recognized that World War II was a war against fascism and the kind of injustice that he had opposed his entire life. He failed his Army physical because of a back injury and haad to find another way to battle fascism. He got a job working for the CIO out of Atlanta and continued the struggle against segregation. As the War continued, there was an opportunity for the South to end the system but soon enough it became apparent that white southerners would not give up the supremacy that they held. Kennedy resolved to attack the KKK and other groups that were the strong-arm troops of segregation. Using the name of a dead man, he joined the Klan.

The Klan was full of silliness — the leader was a Grand Dragon or a Grand Titan and lesser ranks included Kleagles. The group was a Klavern and its chaplain was — I am not making this up — an Imperial Kludd. Some newer recruits to white supremacy were impatient with the hoods and silly names and formed their own outfits. In Georgia, a group called the Columbians were following a line close enough to Nazism that the state Attorney-General became worried. He hired Kennedy to find out more about them. Between 1944 and 1947 Kennedy infiltrated the Columbians and the Ku Klux Klan itself.

Kennedy in Klan regalia with KKK literature trying to get HUAC interested, 1947.

Kennedy made reports to the Attorney-General and the FBI and, at the War’s end when they were no longer so interested in right-wing groups, to journalist Drew Pearson. In 1946 Kennedy published Southern Exposure, an indictment of the segregation system. He desperately wanted to have the information that he had gathered on the KKK to be used to crush that organization. There were some small victories — the Georgia Attorney-General managed to have the Klan’s national charter revoked  and the organization was dinged for back taxes– but nothing like what Kennedy wanted. Finally, in 1947 he published an account of his double agent status in the KKK: I Rode with the Ku Klux Klan (later retitled The Klan Unmasked). He went to Washington and tried to get the House Unamerican Activities Committee to take on the Klan but they ignored him. Kennedy dressed up in Klan regalia and walked into the Capitol where he was grabbed by Congressional guards. Finally, in order to publicize his material, Kennedy teamed up with the Lone Ranger radio show and helped script a series where the Lone Ranger fights an organization very much like the Klan. All of the information in the series — the use of secret names and signs and how people were organized — were direct references to Klan practices. All this got Stetson Kennedy some publicity but it also made him a target.

Kennedy circa 2006, holding the rifle that Woody Guthrie taught him to shoot.

Kennedy was threatened and his house was firebombed. Woody Guthrie taught him to use a rifle and he began going about armed. Perhaps deciding that he was better off in the limelight, Kennedy made a foray into politics and in 1950, ran for US Senator. His opponent was George Smathers who was backed by the DuPont family and their fortune. Woody Guthrie wrote three songs for Kennedy’s write-in campaign (he mispelled “Smathers” as “Mathers”) but the only success that anyone could hope for was that of publicizing problems and making it okay to speak out against the system. Kennedy said that he was running for Total Equality and that just didn’t fly in Florida in 1950.

The real hard work of overcoming segregation was done by black people themselves. One couple who dedicated themselves to this fight were Harry and Harriette Moore, two schoolteachers who battled the system through the 1930s and 40s. In 1946 the two were fired from their teaching jobs and went to full time organizing for the NAACP. Two black youths were convicted of a murder in 1949 even though there was little evidence that they were involved. The Supreme Court overturned their conviction and they were granted a new trial in 1951. On the way to that trial, the sheriff pulled the police car over and shot both the defendants, killing one of them. The Moores demanded that the sheriff be removed from office and raised a fuss. Six weeks after the shootings, on Christmas Eve, their house was bombed. Harry died immediately but Harriette lasted for another nine days before succumbing to her injuries. At the trial of the KKK members who were accused of the bombing, Stetson Kennedy testified about the KKK and its organization. During a break in the trial, one Klan member threatened to cut Kennedy’s throat but was restrained by his leader who said that the courthouse was not the best place to get away with such a crime. Such was Florida, then.

By now Kennedy was “the most-hated man in the state” as he said later. Someone brought word to him of a UN commission investigating peonage and forced labor, slavery by another name. Kennedy was surprised to see that the United States was not one of the countries named as a target. He packed up the information he had collected in the turpentine camps and cotton fields of Florida and took off to Geneva to testify. For the next six or so years, Kennedy stayed in Europe. He published a guide to Jim Crow, so that visitors to the United States would understand just what was acceptable and what was not. Some say that he stayed in Europe out of fear, Kennedy says not and there are some indications that he travelled back and forth between the continents during this period. None of this is easy to track down since, as we shall see, Kennedy preferred a good story to a factual one and was very sloppy with dates when discussing his activities.

Photo of Woody Guthrie taken by Kennedy at Bulathahatchee in 1953 as it appears on the Mermaid Avenue, vol. 2 CD.

The photo of Guthrie at Bulathahatchee was taken, we are told, in 1953. The year before he had been diagnosed with Huntington’s disease and had begun to lose control of his muscle functions. In 1953, at Stetson Kennedy’s place, there was an accident with fire and gasoline that burned Guthrie’s arm so badly that never played guitar again. That was probably the last time, too, that he and Kennedy met. Kennedy went to Europe and Guthrie to a New York hospital.

Stetson Kennedy returned to Florida in 1958 or thereabouts and returned to writing. He helped put out a book on Florida folklore and, in 1995, another on how the South won the Civil War, one last shot at the Lost Cause. During these years, Kennedy became more accepted by Florida — after all, his views had won out and segregation was a thing of the past, right? Well, No, not according to Kennedy who said that “once we had segregated racism, we now have desegregated racism”. Still, he was listened to now by people who were prepared to hear his words without reaching for a weapon. Then came Freakonomics.

Economist Steven Levitt and journalist Stephen Dubner published Freakonomics in 2005. Among other things, the book mentioned Stetson Kennedy as a major force in bringing down the KKK. Later, the two authors got a New York Times column where they continued their writings. In 2006 they published a column saying that they were wrong about Kennedy, that he had embellished his exploits as an undercover agent and that another man, or possibly two other men, had also infiltrated the Klan at that time. A note to this effect was added to later editions of Freakonomics. In response, Kennedy pointed out that he had stated in his 1947 book that he had used research collected by another man, who wished to remain anonymous, as well as his own experiences. People who knew Kennedy were well aware that he might have dramatized a point or two for the sake of the story but that it was, in all essentials, true. And many pointed out that the anonymous infiltrator(s) did not face the death threats that Kennedy did.

Aside from this smudge on his legacy, Stetson Kennedy remains a Good Guy. He spoke and worked against racism in a time and place where it was dangerous to do so. He was still speaking out in 2011 when the 94-year-old Kennedy addressed a group of agricultural workers. A few months later he died. His books go in and out of print. Probably his work on Florida folklore will outlast his other writings since the particular social and political background to that work has changed so much.


Official website: Kennedy’s books are listed here.

Paul Ortiz, “Stetson Kennedy and the Pursuit of Truth

Bill Bryson, “Busting Up the Klan and Sticking It to the Man

David Kroll, obit and a report on a 2006 event where Arlo Guthrie sang one of Woody’s songs about Kennedy


3 comments on “Stetson Kennedy

  1. nursemyra says:

    Yet another of your fascinating posts

  2. […] experience and put it to work here. One of my childhood heroes was a man from Jacksonville named Stetson Kennedy. He died a few years back at the age of 94. He was a folklore collector for the WPA, going around […]

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