Stetson Kennedy's Florida

by Wendy Smith

Woody Guthrie wrote a song about him. Jean-Paul Sartre published him. Studs Terkel put him in a book. Zora Neale Hurston gave him the name for his St. Johns County home. Why, even the Man of Steel was Stetson Kennedy’s ally: a 1940s radio serial, ‘Superman vs. the Grand Wizard’, made public the shocking material Kennedy gathered during his undercover investigation of the Ku Klux Klan. His work as a folklorist and a civil rights activist brought Stetson Kennedy friendships with many famous people (plus one comic book character) and took him to Europe, Asia, and Africa. But he’s always returned to his native Florida, where his family’s roots go back for generations.

"My grandfather had a general store in Punta Gorda," he recalls, "and my uncle was a Pony Express rider between there and Naples. I grew up in Jacksonville, but all through my childhood my mother talked about taking us down to see the South Florida sunsets on the Gulf. It took me 50 years to get there and see it!"
He had a lot to do in between. When the 89-year-old author was inducted into the Florida Artists Hall of Fame in April 2005, the citation celebrated Kennedy’s pioneering work as a folklorist, both as state director of the WPA Writers Project from 1937 to 1942 and as the author of such classic texts as Palmetto Country. It also noted his courageous work exposing racism in books like The Klan Unmasked and Jim Crow Guide, the latter title issued by Sartre in 1956 because no U.S. publisher would touch it.

Kennedy’s commitment to protecting the natural environment was highlighted in September 2005, when the Florida Communities Trust approved the creation of a state park including his home and lands. He got the inspiration to name the property Beluthahatchee, Kennedy says, from African-American writer Zora Neale Hurston. "She told me it was a Native American word meaning a mythical sort of Shangri-la where all unpleasantness is forgiven and forgotten, which is just what this old world needs right now."

Kennedy acquired his social conscience early, while collecting bill payments for his father, a furniture merchant in Jacksonville. "It was during the Depression, so he had a lot of ‘dollar down and dollar a week’ sales. While I was a student at Robert E. Lee High School, my job was to go and get those dollar bills every week. The mothers would be waving the bill in my face, saying, ‘If I give this to you, my kids will go to bed hungry tonight.’ That was quite an education for a teenager."

"At the same time I was collecting those dollar bills, I was hearing all kinds of language that I hadn’t heard before. I discovered how much poor people can say in just a few words—for example, ‘If you ain’t got no education, you got to use your brain.’ I realized that this was a separate culture, and I started making notes about it."

At 21, he joined the WPA, where he met Hurston and discovered their shared commitment to preserving the region’s folklore. "She had studied with [pioneering Columbia University anthropologist] Franz Boas, and she convinced him that southern black rural folk culture was a very important, rich culture that someone should record, because it was on the way out. I agreed with her, and I felt the same way about the Florida cracker: rural southern white culture was also vanishing."

Not all black and white Floridians got along as well as Hurston and Kennedy. As the struggle for African-American civil rights intensified after Word War II, Kennedy joined the Ku Klux Klan under an assumed name so that he could expose the organization’s illegal activities. Explaining why he took the unusual step of sharing his discoveries with radio broadcasters, he says, "I couldn’t go to law enforcement, because so many of them were Klansmen. The FBI wasn’t all that interested either, so that didn’t leave much beside the court of public opinion." That’s how Superman ended up battling the Grand Wizard. Revelations about the KKK’s violent methods provoked enough of an outcry to lead to several trials, and Kennedy’s testimony sent quite a few Klansmen to jail.

Unsurprisingly, the Klan didn’t take kindly to this. Woody Guthrie, a pal from the time he wrote Kennedy a fan letter after reading Palmetto Country, helped him defend Beluthahatchee against a threatening KKK motorcade, wielding a rifle that had belonged to Kennedy’s father. (The author recently gave the gun to Guthrie’s son Arlo for his Alice’s Restaurant Museum.) "The bedsheet Klan is now somewhat passé," Kennedy comments, "but Klan-minded folks are still there in the halls of government, on the bench, and out there in the palmettos, where I see private militias practicing with machine guns all the time."

So this venerable radical continues to work for the causes to which he has devoted his life. Taking advantage of the honors showered upon him in recent years, he’s established the Stetson Kennedy Foundation. "Our slogan is, ‘Fellow Man and Mother Earth,’" he says. "That covers everything we’re trying to do." He’s writing a book entitled Hate No More, "a formula for getting along in the 21st century without everybody killing each other." It’s one of the many manuscripts on a large shelf of unfinished projects, he admits with a sigh. "I’m also working on a biography called Dissident at Large and a Key West folklore book called Grits and Grunts. For a long time I went through life saying, ‘It’s not what I’ve done but what I’m going to do,’ but now at 89 I think I’d better stop saying that!"

No matter what he says, it’s hard to believe Kennedy will ever really slow down. Studs Terkel, who included a profile of him in the Coming of Age, dedicated that book "To the old ones who still do battle with dragons." At 89, Stetson Kennedy goes on battling bigots and any other bad guys he might find lurking out there among the palmettos. •

from the January-February 2006 issue

"For a long time I went through
life saying, 'It's not what I've done
but what I'm going to do'
but now at 89 I think I better
stop saying that!"