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Stetson Kennedy, folklorist, ant-racist and anti-fascist, friend of Richard Wright in Paris and published by Jean Paul Sartre, died on August 27, 2011. He was 94 years old. IREHR board member Dan Levitas remembers for all of us the life of Stetson Kennedy.

Remembering Stetson Kennedy  

By Daniel Levitas [1]

I first met Stetson Kennedy in 1991, while serving as executive director of the Atlanta-based Center for Democratic Renewal. Although he was 75-years-old at the time, Stetson was more vigorous, passionate, lucid and focused than most folks half his age. More importantly, he was imbued with a lifetime of wisdom, knowledge, and experience.

Early Life

William Stetson Kennedy was born Oct. 5, 1916, in Jacksonville, Florida, the first of five children whose parents, native Georgians, traced their lineage to two signers of the Declaration of Independence, as well as proud defenders of the Confederacy. His mother Willye was a devoted member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy and his grandfather had been a lieutenant in the Confederate Army. His father George built a successful furniture business.

Stetson was raised within the customs of the segregated, racist South. At the age of six he was appointed by his family to supervise the work of black yardmen at his family’s home on the banks of the St. John’s River. While still in grade school, Stetson discovered a Klan robe owned by an uncle and he later recalled early excitement and pride at seeing his first Ku Klux Klan parade through Jacksonville.

Nevertheless, he readily observed that black people could not use the local library, and had to wait until all whites were served at the counter of the local post office. He remembered with shame and regret an incident when he called a black woman a “n[letters deleted]r” and she burst into tears. “I never called anyone ‘n[letters deleted]r’ again,” Stetson later admitted. These formative experiences inspired him to observe that “white America got its bigotry through mother’s milk and the air it breathed.” After graduating from high school, he worked for his father collecting debts as a furniture bill collector.

While enrolled at the University of Florida in Gainesville in 1935, he landed a job raking leaves on the campus; a job made possible by the New Deal’s Federal Emergency Relief Administration program, “Neighborhood Youth Corps.” He wrote poetry and a regular column for the student newspaper mischievously titled “News in the Nude.” Stetson also began sending more serious journalistic submissions to News Week, New Masses, and other publications. He became active in the American Student Union where he met Molly Yard, the future President of the National Organization for Women, and the soon-to-be folk singer Pete Seeger, who served as Secretary of the ASU chapter at Harvard University. There were links between the ASU and the American Communist Party and Stetson joined the Young Communist League for “about 30 cents.” But he eschewed all aspects of Party discipline.

The fight against Franco and fascism in Spain prompted Stetson and his fellow students to embrace the cause of Spanish Republicanism, and he raised money among the cigar-rollers in Tampa and Key West to aid the children of Spanish refugees.

Distracted by the life-and-death struggles unfolding on the global stage, and increasingly convinced of the irrelevance of academic study, Stetson quit the University of Florida. He hitchhiked to Key West, and spent the next two years living hand-to-mouth in the city’s Cuban Quarter. He collected folklore and organized politically. He also periodically returned to Gainesville, and audited journalism courses. While living in Key West, Stetson saw firsthand the impact of the early New Deal projects, which helped keep the town afloat when Key West officials lacked the money to pay for fire, police or garbage services.

In 1937, at 21, Stetson married his first wife, a 17-year-old Key West girl of Cuban heritage, Edith Amelia Aguilar Ogden. Later that year, Stetson was hired as a “Junior Interviewer” and “Acting Local Supervisor” in Gainesville for the Federal Writers Project (FWP), a New Deal program that would eventually hire more than 6,500 writers in the seven years, 1935-1942. The stated goal of the FWP was to produce guidebooks for each state to promote jobs and stimulate tourism. Through the FWP, Stetson met John A. Lomax, the folklorist-in-residence at the Library of Congress, and his son, Alan Lomax, who was then the Director of the Archive of American Folk Song.

His 1942 book Palmetto Country was based on material never published by the FWP because it was censored out of the Florida guidebook. It dealt with Klan violence, labor struggles, and the peonage of black turpentine workers. It was favorably reviewed in The New York Times and became an instant best seller, distributed in popular department stores. The book was as controversial as it was commercially successful, however, and predictably there were southern reviewers who expressed their displeasure.

In an afterword to the 1989 edition of the book, Stetson wrote: “Even though I had graduated into the abyss of the Great Depression, my generation was nevertheless imbued with a vision of progress—the fond notion that man’s path lay onward and upward, with every difficulty overcome and every gain leading toward a better world.” Joined to this was Kennedy’s belief that intellectuals should never be neutral, but always advocate for social progress.

Zora Neale Hurston was among the writers Stetson supervised while working for the Federal Writer Project. A Barnard College-educated anthropologist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Hurston was one of only 106 African-American writers hired by the FWP. They all were strictly segregated within the agency’s “Negro Unit.” One of their principle projects was to interview former slaves and in this they were extremely successful. The Federal Writers Project came to an end in 1942, however, as it was attacked by conservatives and others who pressured the federal government to eliminate various Depression-era aid programs.

Peggy Bulger with Stetson Kennedy

During the Depression and early war years Stetson’s identity and pursuits were never limited to those of folklorist or writer. When he wasn’t off the beaten track interviewing turpentine workers in the swamps of Florida, or hammering away at manuscripts on his typewriter, he was at meetings of the Southern Conference for Human Welfare, an inter-racial organization dedicated to abolishing the poll tax and segregation, promoting labor rights and civil liberties, and pushing for broad based reform.

According to Peggy Bulger, who wrote her Ph.D. dissertation on Stetson and his role in the American Folklore movement, Stetson believed that both folksong and idiom were to be used “as protest and as a weapon.” (Ms. Bulger is now director of The American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.)

The World War II Years

Barred from fighting in World War Two due to a back injury, Stetson chose instead to fight fascism at home from his new home in Atlanta, Georgia. Using the alias “John Perkins,” he joining a range of white supremacist groups, including the KKK, the neo-Nazi Columbians and other violent racist groups. By day, Kennedy produced educational materials for the labor movement, drew a paycheck as a consultant to the Anti-Defamation League, and worked with the Non-Sectarian Anti-Nazi League. He also contributed material to In Fact, George Seldes’ renowned investigative newsletter. He advised the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) on strategies for organizing southern workers, applying all that he had learned from his fieldwork as a folklorist, which gave him penetrating insight into the idioms and ideologies of poor southerners, white and black.

During that period, Kennedy frequently visited the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, then the main training center for the CIO in the South. He became close friends with Myles and Zilphia Horton and other Highlander founders.

In March 1946, the CIO launched “Operation Dixie” and hired 400 organizers to target one million workers in the textile, wood, chemical, oil and iron industries. Stetson devoted himself to the cause, despite Klan attacks on labor organizers. Anti-communist witch hunts from within and without also weakened the labor movement. Stetson believed that racism was a central obstacle to the progress of the labor movement. He and fellow organizers would often arrange the chairs at local union meetings in deliberate disarray so black and white workers had difficulty self-segregating themselves. But the effort ultimately faltered.

According to Stetson, “The CIO had failed to make good union people out of their members,” by failing to educate them politically and persuade them to abandon the evils of racism, anti-Semitism, and other prejudices.

During this same period, Stetson publicly berated four-term Georgia Governor Eugene Talmadge. The Klan-backed governor presided over a violent political machine from 1930-1946. He imprisoned strikers and fought the nascent civil rights movement as well as the New Deal. Meeting with Talmadge as his Klan alter ego, John Perkins, Stetson once asked the Governor how he proposed to keep black people from voting. “He tore off a scrap of paper, and he wrote on it and handed it across the desk to me,” Stetson told Bulger. “What he had written was one word – ‘pistols.'”

Stetson also used his skills as a folklorist and interviewer to collect countless histories and narratives from key Klansman and he passed detailed reports of these encounters to anti-racist groups, the journalist Drew Pearson, and state authorities. When Ellis Arnall was elected Governor of Georgia in 1942 on a reformist platform, Kennedy developed close ties with Arnall’s Assistant Attorney General, Dan Dukes. Dukes used Stetson’s information to embark on a legal campaign that culminated in the revocation of the Klan’s state charter.

The Klan UnmaskedStetson detailed many of his exploits as a Klan-buster in his 1954 book, The Klan Unmasked, which was republished in 1990 by Florida Atlantic University Press. The book and his other journalistic efforts helped demystify the KKK by both exposing its secret inner-workings and ridiculing its followers, exposing them to well-deserved contempt.

Eight years earlier, in October 1946, Doubleday had published Kennedy’s Southern Exposure, an expose of white supremacist political control of the South since the Civil War. In it, Kennedy posited that an alliance of anti-union northern industrialists and racist southerners had combined to create a new “slavocracy” in the South. The book compared Nazi ideology to Southern apartheid and various targets of Stetson’s investigations threatened to sue, but no litigation ever came of it. The book was published to wide acclaim in Britain, Scandinavia, South America and elsewhere abroad.

Stetson left Atlanta in 1947 for New York City, where he had been invited by the Non-Sectarian Anti-Nazi League to become a “special consultant” to the organization. Stetson lived in Greenwich Village and joined a thriving community of intellectuals, artists, musicians, writers, folklorists, and political activists. Stetson maintained his distance from the Communist Party, even as he remained close to many prominent “fellow-travelers.” During these years Kennedy became even closer to the famed folklorist Alan Lomax who worked at the Archive of American Folk Song and served as the Director of Folk Music for Decca Records, among numerous other important pursuits. Both were active in the Peoples’ Songs movement that linked musical folklore with democratic activism. It was in New York City in 1947 that Stetson first met Woody Guthrie, although the two had already become friends through an earlier correspondence.

Stetson backed Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace for the Presidency in 1948 on the Progressive Party ticket. Wallace only won 3% of the vote, finishing fourth behind segregationist Strom Thurmond. The following year, in 1949, Stetson helped research and draft a petition submitted to the United Nations entitled “We Charge Genocide.” Stetson was recruited for the project by W.E.B. DuBois, Paul Robeson and Howard Fast.

Back In Florida

In 1950, after submission of the petition to the U.N., Stetson left New York and returned to Florida. A combination of relentless red-baiting and debilitating left-wing sectarianism had taken its toll emotionally. With a second wife, Kay Kerby, Kennedy moved to 50 acres south of Jacksonville that he had inherited from his father. The couple lived in a converted Greyhound bus. Stetson dubbed the homestead “Beluthahatchee,” a Seminole word signifying an imaginary place of peace.

Kennedy soon became active in Florida politics and worked on behalf of Democrat U.S. Senator Claude Pepper in the 1950 re-election campaign. Pepper was being challenged in the primary by U.S. Representative George A. Smathers, a former Pepper supporter who now attacked the Senator, calling him “Red Pepper” for his left-leaning sympathies. Pepper supported progressive initiatives like universal health care, but he had made the mistake of traveling to the Soviet Union in 1945 and declaring that Joseph Stalin, was “a man Americans could trust.” Pepper lost that senate primary, although he returned to Congress in 1962.

Kennedy also entered the U.S. Senate campaign in 1950, running unsuccessfully in the general election as an independent, write-in candidate on a platform of “total equality.” Stetson’s campaign was endorsed by the black labor press. Woody Guthrie, always a good friend and indefatigable supporter, contributed two songs to his campaign. But the effort was more symbolic than real. After the election, while he traveled to New York City, Stetson’s home at Beluthahatchee was ransacked by the KKK.

During this period, Stetson became involved in two high profile cases of racial injustice.

In 1949, four young black men were accused of raping a white woman in Groveland, Florida. One of the suspects was promptly murdered by a Sheriff’s posse. Of the three survivors, one was sentenced to life in prison. The other two, Sam Shepherd and Walter Irvin, were sentenced to death, but appealed. The U.S. Supreme Court ordered a new trial. Before the men could have their day in court, however, they were summarily shot by Lake County, Florida, Sheriff Willis V. McCall. Shepherd died, but Irvin survived. Irvin was eventually paroled, but McCall was subsequently cleared of any wrongdoing. In protest, Stetson campaigned against Sheriff McCall and agitated for justice in the case of the Groveland Four, which drew national attention and the involvement of NAACP attorney Thurgood Marshall. But true justice was never found.

A second case, involved Harry Moore, president of the Florida State NAACP. He was one of the leading forces mobilizing black voters. Notwithstanding the myriad tools used by whites to suppress black voters, the black electorate still had the potential to be a significant factor in Florida politics. As a result of his efforts, Moore and his wife were assassinated on Christmas night 1951, when a dynamite bomb exploded underneath the bedroom of their wood frame house in Mims, Florida. The Moore’s had also campaigned actively on behalf of the Groveland Four and Stetson knew Harry Moore personally. He reported on the crime for The Nation and decades later, he conducted a tireless campaign to reopen the investigation to identify the killer, but the trail ran cold. Justice was denied in that case also.

Off to Europe

On Nov. 5, 1952, Stetson left for Europe to offer testimony on the subject of “forced labor” in America before the United Nations, which had established an Ad Hoc Committee on Forced Labor. He planned to stay two months, but he remained abroad for more than eight years. The FBI closely monitored Kennedy during this time and took particular interest in his testimony in Geneva. Based on his years of fieldwork investigating conditions in Florida’s turpentine camps and the plight of sharecroppers and others trapped in peonage across the rural South, Stetson testified that more than five million Americans were forced to work under conditions of involuntary servitude.

From Geneva, Stetson travelled to Paris and Vienna. In 1954 his book, I Rode with the Ku Klux Klan was published in England by Arco Press. Translated into 20 languages, the book met with critical acclaim and he succeeded in establishing himself as an American literary figure of some stature. After meeting with Stetson, Jean-Paul Sartre agreed to publish Stetson’s Jim Crow Guide to the USA in French as Introduction a l’Amerique Raciste and Sartre wrote the preface to the 1955 French edition. Stetson’s text begins: “While there are many guides to the U.S.A., this is the only one which faces the fact that despite the affirmation of the American Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal, in America in reality some are more equal than others.”

Stetson employed biting satire and sharp wit to expose both the hypocrisy and genocidal consequences of racial bigotry since before the nation’s founding. Written with Elizabeth Gardner, the book did not appear in the U.S. until 1990, when it was published by Florida Atlantic University Press as Jim Crow Guide. The Way It Was. It remains a penetrating read.

Stetson went from Paris to East Berlin where he spent eleven months. His impression of the “primitive horrendousness” of the Communist movement was hardly positive. Ultimately he “hated East Germany,” as he told Bulger later. Stetson then went to Hungary where he found himself visiting Gypsy camps and conducting folkloric fieldwork, drawing connections between the treatment of Gypsies in Eastern Europe and black people in the U.S. During this time, he met and married a Hungarian woman, Aniko Veres, his third wife.

In 1954, Kennedy visited the Soviet Union for the first time where he was dismayed to find Soviet repression of local minorities and disdain for those local folkloric traditions that he held in such high esteem. He witnessed the same suppression of local minorities elsewhere in the East Bloc. As Stetson quickly found, the Soviet System was hardly the paradise of folk culture he had hoped for. Instead it was “a veritable Sahara” as he wrote in “Folk Arts Under the Red Star” a critical work that he completed in 1958, but which never found a publisher.

Stetson also denounced Stalinist anti-Semitism. “Are the Stalinists guilty of using the Jews as scapegoats, in order to divert people’s minds from their real tormentors, in much the same manner as the Nazis had done? The answer . . . to [this question] has to be yes,” Stetson wrote in “Behind the Curtain.” Known in China for his writings about the Ku Klux Klan, Stetson was invited to visit there for three months in 1955.

By the time he returned to Europe, Stetson was entirely discouraged by the failures of Communism and he vowed that he was “not going to write another word about shortcomings in the West, unless the East is doing at least as good in the same respect,” he told Bulger later.

Adding insult to injury, in 1956 Stetson was living in Budapest and he became an eyewitness to the Soviet repression of the Hungarian uprising, watching firsthand the arrival of Soviet tanks. He escaped and managed to return to Paris with his Hungarian wife and her children in January 1957, but he was under virtual house arrest as a man without a valid American passport.

After finally securing a new passport in 1958, Stetson was once again able to travel freely. He enrolled in the Doctorate of Letters program at the Sorbonne and reintegrated himself into a large expatriate community of American artists and writers–including Richard Wright, who had moved to Paris much earlier, in 1948. Stetson and Wright became friends and the two men frequented the same cafes and literary circles.

Back in the USA

Stetson returned to the U.S. in February 1960, and headed directly home to Beluthahatchee. He became the Florida correspondent and circulation manager for The Pittsburgh Courier, a well-regarded black community newspaper. He authored a regular column, “Up Front Down South.” Kennedy marched for civil rights with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Albany, Georgia, and Oxford, Mississippi and Selma, Alabama.

On a personal front, always a lover of life and of women, other marriages followed.

Kennedy returned to federal employment in 1965 as the Planning Director of the Jacksonville Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO), where he worked for the next 14 years, until 1979. At the same time, he helped raise money for historically black colleges nearby. In 1991, Kennedy persuaded then-Governor Lawton Chiles of Florida to reopen the investigation of the 1951 assassination of the Moores. Although Stetson’s campaign to bring the Moores’ killers to justice ultimately foundered, he pursued the effort with the same dogged persistence and unquenched thirst for justice as he had demonstrated throughout his life.

It has been 20 years since I first met Stet, and no obituary or remembrance can adequately portray a life lived as fully as his. Measured only by his accomplishments, to say Stet’s life was truly remarkable would be a profound understatement. One can only say his life was breathtaking and unique. Stet had an undying passion for justice and boundless energy for the good fight. But it was his approach to life that made him a truly amazing person: endlessly inquisitive, deeply compassionate, always humorous, emotionally fearless, contagiously courageous, and fully prepared to give of himself to the very end.



[1] Author’s Note: The following piece is drawn from my personal acquaintance with Stetson Kennedy, as well as my knowledge of his books and other writings, but the vast majority of the facts contained here are the product of research and interviews conducted by Margaret Anne “Peggy” Bulger, a Ph.D. student who wrote her dissertation on Stetson Kennedy and the contemporaneous political and intellectual movements of which Stetson was a part. Bulger is now the director of The American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. She played no part in the writing of this remembrance, but credit must duly be given to her exhaustive Ph.D. thesis which contains the most thorough biographical material of the life of Stetson Kennedy.

Daniel Levitas

Author Daniel Levitas

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