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Songwriters & Artists are inspired by Beluthahatchee and Woody Guthrie
With half a dozen Stetson Kennedys,
we can transform our society into one of truth, grace and beauty
William Stetson Kennedy was born in Jacksonville Florida on October 5, 1916 to George and Willie Stetson-Kennedy. As a young boy, the oldest of five children in his prosperous Riverside family, Stetson was tasked with going door to door to collect the $1 down/$1 a week payments to his father’s furniture store. Early on, he saw the economic and racial disparity that existed in his own hometown and became determined to do something about it. Stetson hunted down answers rather than shrugging at questions
“ During months spent trying to pose as a hard-boiled bill collector, seeking payments on furniture accounts from impoverished Southern whites and Negroes during the depths of the depression, I became acutely aware of one-third of the nation. No sooner was I aware of their problems than I determined to do something about them. It seemed simple at first. I would write a book telling how the multitudes suffer from lack of food, clothing, shelter – and the other two-thirds of the nation (who couldn’t possibly realize how much suffering was going on) would read the book and take appropriate action to alleviate the distressful conditions. I was not long so naïve.” Stetson Kennedy, 1936
He left the University of Florida in 1937 to join the WPA’s Florida Writers' Project, and at the age of 21 was put in charge of folklore, oral history, and ethnic studies. While he was with the WPA, he oversaw the work of African American writer Zora Neal Hurston, among others.
For nearly a decade during the 1940’s, Kennedy infiltrated and informed on the criminal activities of the Ku Klux Klan, taking their secrets to the airwaves through the Super Man Radio Show and testifying in court against the Klan. Kennedy reported those experiences in his book, The Klan Unmasked, published first in England and decades later by University Presses of Florida. He ran as a write-in candidate for the U.S. Senate in 1950 on a platform of “not white supremacy but right supremacy.”
With a KKK contract out on him ($1,000 a pound) Kennedy flew to Geneva, Switzerland in the early 1950’s to testify on forced labor practices in Florida’s turpentine camps, remaining in Europe for eight years. His articles were published in a magazine edited by Jean-Paul Sartre, who secured publication of his Guide to Jim Crow, a compilation of racial discrimination laws.
Kennedy joined protestors in Jacksonville at sit-ins at Woolworth’s downtown lunch counter, and was there on bloody “Axe Handle Saturday” on August 27, 1960. He later reported on the demonstrations in St. Augustine with Dr. Martin Luther King for the Pittsburgh Courier. For years, he worked side by side with Alton Yates and others at the Greater Jacksonville Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Youth Crisis Center.
During the last two decades of his life, Kennedy received long overdue recognition as one of the nation’s civil rights pioneers, being inducted into the Florida Artist’s Hall of Fame in 2005, and receiving numerous accolades including the Florida Folk Heritage Award, Dorothy Dodd Lifetime Achievement Award from the Florida Historical Society, People of Vision Award from St. Johns County, the Ghandi, King, Ikeda Award, Peace and Unity Award, Jules Verne Medal of Honor, the NAACP Freedom Award and myriad others.
Kennedy is known for his books Southern Exposure, The Klan Unmasked (formerly, I Rode with the KKK), among others. He has been discovered and rediscovered by authors, young scholars, academics, filmmakers, musicians and journalists alike. Up until his death in 2011, Kennedy continued to champion the human rights causes that drove his life of activism. His advice to young people was always to "Pick a cause and stick to it."
Following a lifetime spent championing human rights, cultural heritage, and environmental stewardship, author, folklorist and activist Stetson Kennedy, 94, passed away on August 27, 2011. His mind, we are reminded, remained razor sharp until the end. The attending physician at Jackson Memorial Hospital, where Stetson was rushed by ambulance, asked "Where are you Stetson"?. To which Stetson replied "planet Earth".
Today, The Stetson Kennedy Foundation perpetuates his life work, partnering with the community in advocating for Fellow Man and Mother Earth.
In the writings of Stetson Kennedy, education and social action are constantly joined. Generations of human rights advocates have used his investigative reporting and research to improve the conditions of agricultural works, women, Latinos, and many others. Stetson Kennedy's pursuit of honesty, social equality, and freedom was unparalleled. He told stories of America's Forgotten People. Dr, Paul Ortiz
He ain't the worlds best writer, nor the worlds best speller but when he believes in somthin' he's the loudest yeller. Woody Guthrie
Stetson was steeped in folklore. His attitude was, “What good is it if it doesn’t make the world a better place?” With Stetson, it was all about making the world a better place.Peggy Bulger
Along with his wonderful abilities as a writer and scholar, Stetson possesses enormous courage, social involvement, and a big heart... He's a brave man, of great conscience, and ought to be accorded a seat alongside Patrick Henry and other great freedom fighters.Alan Lomax
Stetson, your life defines the human rights struggle of the 20th century.President Betty Castor, University of South Florida
Stetson Kennedy is our Nation’s No. 1 Klan-buster. He's done a painstaking and patriotic job in exposing the KKK. Everyone interested in the future of America should read his book The Klan Unmasked.Drew Pearson
Back in the forties, when the going was very, very rough, Stetson Kennedy was working with me and our Atlanta office, and he infiltrated not just one, but many Klans.Arnold Forster, general counsel, Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith
I always said that my last words would be my most militant. SK 2010
It's my belief that writers, like ordinary people, serve one of two purposes in life: either social or anti-social. I cannot see how a writer can be neutral
Anyone who is both intelligent and pious is perforce also a hypocrite SK 1990
I recall Gandhi said ultimately all things devolve into the political, but I'd argue that all things devolve into pro-people and anti-people. And I can pose the question, which side are you on? SK 2000
One time somebody asked me what Woody and I talked about, ... You know, we didn't talk that much. We didn't have to. I knew what he thought, and he knew what I thought.
The bed sheet brigade is bad enough, but the real threat to American and human rights today is the plain clothes Klux in the halls of government and certain black-robed Klux on court benches. SK 1985
There is more than one way to be Kluxed, and we need to think about ourselves and the kind of people we elect to public office. SK 1995
War is nothing more nor less than all-out licensed reciprocal terrorism, so it is no way to put terrorism down or win friends and influence people SK 1994
There's nothing like the sound of rain hitting a tin roof. SK 2003
Oral history represents a democratization of the history-telling process... this thing of having history recorded from on high for us, instead of doing it for ourselves, has proven to be a risky business. We need to have history from the bottom up. SK 1995
The buffet has Lobster and prime rib I cant decide which one I want, so I'll have both. SK 2008
It's my belief that writers, like ordinary people, serve one of two purposes in life: either social or anti-social. I cannot see how a writer can be neutral. Stetson Kennedy
First Published 1942
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First Published 1993
First Published 1998
First Published 2010
First Published (posthumously) 2011
All Klansmen take an oath that, in the event that they ever divulge a Klan secret, they will “willingly accept death, death, death at the hands of a brother.” For generations, secrecy has been the Klan's stock-in-trade. Without any, here's hoping it will just fold its robes, and fade away and die.