William Stetson Kennedy was born on October 5, 1916 to George and Willie Simpson 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.
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
Jacksonville’s native son began his social justice activism as a student at University of Florida where he organized Florida’s first chapter of the American Student Union, later establishing the Florida Inter-Collegiate Peace Council – the first interracial student group in the South.
In 1938, just after the hurricane that demolished Henry Flagler’s railroad, Kennedy moved to Key West where he began working with the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and published his first articles. The folklore and some of the oral histories he gathered were published in Grits & Grunts, (Pineapple Press, 2008), one of seven of his books published in his lifetime.
The last known surviving author in Roosevelt’s WPA Florida Writer’s Project, Kennedy traveled the state with author and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston on a folklore “treasure hunt.” Using a coffee-table size tape recorder borrowed from the Library of Congress, they recorded voices in turpentine camps and “juke joints” and spent a day at the Clara White Mission in downtown Jacksonville recording the voices of Dr. Eartha White and friends singing Negro Spirituals.
In 1942, Kennedy published his first book, Palmetto Country. When WPA Folklore Director Alan Lomax shared Kennedy’s book with Woody Guthrie, the folksinger was so taken with the writer’s honesty and courage that he traveled to Florida to meet him. Guthrie wrote more than 80 songs as well as Seeds of Man, his autobiography, at Kennedy’s homeplace, Beluthahatchee, which was named by Zora Neal Hurston as a place of peace, where all unpleasantness is forgiven and forgotten.
Kennedy’s cedar home at Beluthahatchee on State Road 13 is now owned by St. John’s County, designated a Florida Heritage Museum and a Literary Landmark by Friends of the Library USA – the only Literary Landmark in the U.S. that honors two authors, Stetson Kennedy and Woody Guthrie.
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 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.
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. Today, the Stetson Kennedy Foundation perpetuates his life work, partnering with the community in advocating for “Fellow Man and Mother Earth.” In this year of 2016, the 100th anniversary of his birth, we seek recognition by the City of Jacksonville for the good works of the late Stetson Kennedy. We seek a Proclamation from the Mayor and City Council designating October 2016 to be Stetson Kennedy Month.
The meaningful life of Florida’s Famous Klan-Buster will be honored throughout the month of October with guided tours of Beluthahatchee Park conducted by the Stetson Kennedy Foundation. With Honorary Chairmanship by Folksinger Arlo Guthrie, the Stetson Kennedy Foundation will hold a 100th Birthday Bash on October 5, 2016 at the Wilson Theatre, Florida State Community College – Jacksonville. For information on guided tours, the birthday party, or donating to the Stetson Kennedy Foundation, please either: