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Legacy Of Social Justice Activist Offers Perspective On Divided Society

2016 is a year when bonds across race, gender, and political party are being testing. But it’s also the 100th anniversary of the birth of a Florida historian, folklorist and social justice activist, who could offer some advice to a society in turmoil. Here's a profile of Stetson Kennedy.

William Stetson Kennedy was born October 5th, 1916 in Jacksonville, Florida to a wealthy white family. From a young age, Kennedy witnessed the inequalities of a segregated society, collecting payments for his father’s business in Jacksonville’s black community. Eventually Kennedy’s view of segregation became a point of conflict with his family, says his friend Wayne Wood, alluding to a racial slur.       

“One of his brothers I believe it was said, Stetson sometimes I think you like those 'n words' better than you do us. And he said, yes I do. And he walked out of the house and I don’t think he communicated with some of those family members for decades afterwards,” Wood said.

Kennedy went on to work for the Federal Writer’s Project, part of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. He and famed novelist Zora Neale Hurston traveled the state documenting the stories of working people: farmers, carpenters and former slaves. He made this recordingof turpentine worker James Griffin in 1939.

“Here I go, right back in jail again. Oh, here I go, right back in jail again. I don’t have any money and I sure don’t have no friends,” Griffin sang.

"They quit the Klan because they didn't like the exposure the group was getting."

But Kennedy is perhaps best known for infiltrating the heart of the Ku Klun Klan in Atlanta, Georgia. He collected information on the Klan’s plans and membership rolls, and leaked it to the press, and to a popular radio program with an instantly recognizable tagline:

“Look, up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s Superman!”

In 1946, millions of listeners tuned in to the 16 part story of Superman’s takedown of the Ku Klux Klan.

“Today the Daily Planet’s attack on the Klan of the Fiery Cross has brought their vengeance down on Perry White, and the symbol of hatred burns again, this time at the door of the grey-haired editor,” the program announcer said.

“People got out of the Klan or they quit the Klan because they didn’t like the exposure the group was getting, or they didn’t want to be associated with a group that was being cast as an arch villain,” said James Cusick, the curator at the University of Florida’s P.K. Yonge Library, where many of Kennedy’s papers are held.

He says Kennedy’s work helped expose the terror group, and ensured the Klan lost its status as a tax-free charitable organization.

Well known existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre published Kennedy’s account of the Klan in France in the 1950s, after US publishers turned Kennedy down. He also cherished a long friendship with folksinger Woody Guthrie, writer of "This Land Is Your Land". Guthrie even wrote campaign songs for Kennedy’s ill-fated bids for public office, like this one covered by Grammy-nominated artists Billy Bragg and Wilco:

“I done spent my last three cents mailing my letter to the president.  I didn’t make a show, I didn’t make a dent, that’s why I swinging over to this independent gent. Stetson Kennedy, writing his name in, Stetson Kennedy…”

But the place where Kennedy’s legacy really lives on is called Beluthahatchee.

“Beluthahatchee means a place where all unpleasantness is forgotten and forgiven,” said Karen Roumillat, Kennedy’s step daughter. She helps maintain Beluthahatchee, his lakeside home overlooking cypress trees laden with Spanish moss, which is now protected by St. Johns County. But outside of this place, he is not a household name. But James Cusick says the unlikely social justice figure is still relevant today. At a time when political and racial divisions are at the forefront, he says look to the words of Stetson Kennedy.

“It’s not really so easy or so final to try and stop prejudice or stop racism, and everything it brings with it. Each new generation has to kind of confront the fact that the roots of it are still in society and you always have to deal with it," he said.

A century after his birth, Stetson Kennedy fans hope Floridians will rediscover his work, and help keep his memory alive, as he did for those before him.

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.