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Remembering Famed Folklorist And Activist Stetson Kennedy

Florida Memory

Wednesday marks the centennial of the birth of Stetson Kennedy, a folklorist, historian and social justice activist. He’s a larger than life figure in Florida history that many have never of.

William Stetson Kennedy was dedicated to documenting the lives, cultures and struggles of working people. He cut his teeth at the Florida Writer’s Project in the 1930s, recording African American spirituals and work songs with author and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston. You can listen here to Kennedy and Hurston taping a railroad workers’ chant called Let’s Shake It, in 1939.

But Stetson is perhaps best known for infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan in the 1940s. Kennedy’s undercover work led to the Klan losing its status as a tax-free charitable organization. James Cusick is the curator of the P.K. Yonge Library at the University of Florida, where many of Kennedy’s papers are held. Cusick says despite a long and rich career, Stetson Kennedy isn’t a household name. But Cusick says his writings on racism and prejudice are still relevant today.

“And the reason he’s worth rediscovering and the reason he can be rediscovered is because the things he wrote about for the better part of three quarters of  century, the problems he saw, the issues he saw are ongoing issues,” Cusick said.

Admirers hope the centennial of Kennedy’s birth will spur new interest in his work. Stetson Kennedy would have been 100 years old Wednesday.

As a Tallahassee native, Kate Payne grew up listening to WFSU. She loves being part of a station that had such an impact on her. Kate is a graduate of the Florida State University College of Motion Picture Arts. With a background in documentary and narrative filmmaking, Kate has a broad range of multimedia experience. When she’s not working, you can find her rock climbing, cooking or hanging out with her cat.