White Voice for Blacks Tells of Lonely Struggle

By Alliniece T. Andino
Times-Union staff writer

January, 2002

photo: metro

  Asked why he has done the things he's done, civil rights activist Stetson Kennedy retorted with, "Why don't you care? I can't see why anyone wouldn't."
-- Bob Self/staff

Rights icon joined Klan to expose it
Kennedy also stood alone when he joined a Georgia chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, an organization he wanted to break down instead of building up as his fellow Klansmen envisioned. "In the end," explained friend MaVynee Betsch, "I guess that's what makes heroes is that you do stand alone." Forty years later, his hair has thinned. His skin has gathered some wrinkles. But his blue eyes still pierce a person as he talks. And those eyes have seen so much. He's seen a dog shot to death on his doorstep and a 10-foot wooden cross surrounded by newspaper articles about him and set afire. He's seen a black cabdriver attacked and killed by Klansmen because the man drove white, female passengers. The author and activist will tell what his eyes have seen over the years, during the 15th annual Martin Luther King Breakfast tomorrow. Several pictures of King show a man alone in deep contemplation. As with King, Kennedy's years fighting for the civil rights of blacks and speaking out against injustices were lonely years. "There weren't many white people who supported the demonstrations at that time, which caused him to be ostracized in the white community," said Alton Yates, a member of the NAACP youth council during the 1950s and early 1960s.

"Both of them [King and Kennedy] were willing to give everything they have, including their lives if necessary, to the cause, the cause of freedom, the cause of justice and the cause of equal opportunity," Yates said.

Kennedy has organized unions, written folklore and in the 1950s addressed the United Nations about forced labor in the United States. He has penned five books that were published and one he plans to publish this year. Another six are in the works, including his autobiography called Dissident at Large. His resume lists about 20 awards except the latest one received last year on his 85th birthday. Kennedy earned the Benjamin Spock Peacemaker Award from the Florida Coalition for Peace and Justice Peace Camp in Waldo.

Champion for blacks
Kennedy, who was raised in Jacksonville, had seen blacks beaten and mistreated. Even his buddies at Lee High School knocked black delivery boys from their bicycles for kicks. "I decided I didn't think that was funny," Kennedy said. Siding with blacks and being sensitive to their plight cost him the closeness of his family. "To this day, I get poison-pen letters addressed to Mr. BLACKsheep," he said For 15 years, including the peak of the civil rights movement, Kennedy was the Florida editor and a reporter for the Pittsburgh Courier, a black newspaper with national circulation. Besides Kennedy and the Florida Star, a black newspaper in Jacksonville, the media overlooked civil rights demonstrations around the area and pretended they didn't exist, Yates said. During his years at the Courier, Kennedy took pictures of "colored only" signs at state parks. He showed the photos to the NAACP, which threatened to sue the state to desegregate its parks. The state quickly volunteered to make the change. Kennedy reported on King's marches in Selma, Albany and Tuscaloosa, Ala. Kennedy said he asked the civil rights martyr to come to Northeast Florida. King later protested at the segregated Monson Bayfront Resort in St. Augustine in 1964. "Stetson stood up when America was expressing one thing and doing another," Betsch said. "Stetson called its bluff."

Long before King and other African-American leaders pushed for integration, Kennedy risked his life and became a Klansman under the alias John S. Perkins. He wanted to hurt the white supremacist organization, so he broadcast the minutes of their meetings and made public the names of judges, police officers and politicians who were Klan members.

"It proved to be very damned effective," he said with a wheezing laugh, his arms folded and resting on his chest. He later wrote a book about the experience titled The Klan Unmasked. After reading the book, Betsch pictured Kennedy as the tall John Wayne type. Instead, she met a man who was small in stature and soft-spoken.

Outlived his enemies
It was "fool's luck," Kennedy said, that kept him from dying at the hands of the Klan, which once posted a $1,000-a-pound price for him. Tom Prater of the National Association for the Advancement of White People Florida Chapter said he doesn't know Kennedy but in the 1940s, Kennedy could have been shot as a race traitor. Kennedy's wife of 30 years, Joyce, joked that he has outlived both enemies and close friends. One of those friends, folk singer Woody Guthrie, wrote a song named Stetson Kennedy. A line in the song says, "I ain't the world's best writer nor the world's best speller/But when I believe in something I'm the loudest yeller." Kennedy did more than yell, he worked to make the world more peaceful, said William Slaughter, a professor of English at the University of North Florida. "He is history," said Slaughter, who has used The Klan Unmasked in his courses. When asked why he has done the things he's done, Kennedy retorted with, "Why don't you care? I can't see why anyone wouldn't. "I think every child is born with a sense of what is fair and unfair," Kennedy said. The Martin Luther King breakfast represents building the community as a whole instead of separate communities, he said. "It means that Jacksonville and I have come a long way since I got born 85 years ago." But Kennedy soon shifts his blue eyes to look out of the window and say, "There's still lots of pockets of resistance of racism that need to be mopped up."