The Ballad of Stetson Kennedy
One man's battle against "the raceyhaters, pinkybaiters, deadbrainers, and fraidy cats."
If we fix it so's you can't make money on war,
We'll forget what we're killing folks for,
We'll find us a peace job equal and free,
Dump Smathers-duPont in a salty sea.
Well, this makes Stetson Kennedy the man for me!
- Woody Guthrie, Stetson Kennedy, 1950
In 1950, Stetson Kennedy, writer, rabble-rouser, radical, put himself forth as a write-in candidate for the U.S. Senate. His opponent was Democrat George Smathers, the choice of Big Business and white supremacy. Smathers had money and the party machine behind him. Kennedy had pretty much nothing but a campaign song by that "red" Woody Guthrie, which Florida radio stations refused to play. "I was the colorblind candidate, running on a platform of total equality," says Kennedy.
He got in the race, he says, "to break the ice."
What he broke was the oak-hard decorum of the "Southern way of life." Kennedy had worked with writer Zora Neale Hurston in the 1930s to collect and preserve Florida's folk culture - especially its African-American folk culture - revealing the damn-near-slavery conditions of the turpentine camps and the injustices of Jim Crow. He infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in the 1940s to unmask America's own home-grown terrorism. He was on a mission, as he said in his 1946 book Southern Exposure, to show that the solution to the South's economic and moral backwardness was "for working folks to arm themselves with a ballot in one hand and a union card in the other." But trying to vote in the tiny St. Johns River hamlet of Switzerland, Fla., on Election Day 1950, Kennedy was greeted by a mob of drunken white men wielding broken beer bottles. A couple of sheriff's deputies ran them off, only to arrest Kennedy in the act of voting. He had challenged a Florida law that prohibited bringing "campaign literature" near a polling place: Kennedy's poor, often nearly-illiterate supporters needed his name carefully written out for them, since even a small spelling error on a write-in ballot would get it disqualified. Kennedy was hauled off, supposedly to jail. He wasn't sure he'd make it that far: "I thought they were going to lynch me," says Kennedy, with a sweet smile.
Over the course of Kennedy's long career fighting for social justice, a lot of people have wanted to lynch him, literally and figuratively. His upstanding old Florida family (he is the grandson of a Confederate officer) shunned him, white commentators denounced him as "a traitor to his region and his race," the FBI spied on him and the Ku Klux Klan tried to burn down his house, leaving a card reading "S.K. - You are finished; we have just begun! - KKK."
"Stetson Kennedy is lucky to be alive," says Gary Mormino, professor of Florida studies at the University of South Florida. "He was one of the most hated men in America."
Half a century on, things are a bit different. Kennedy, 87 years old now, is regularly called "one of the greatest living Floridians." He's been given awards by peace groups, civil rights groups and governors. His controversial books, long out of print, have been reissued by the University Press of Florida. Mormino places him in the long, if lately undervalued, tradition of progressive Floridians, including Claude Pepper, LeRoy Collins and Marjory Stoneman Douglas: "Kennedy is like Chief Osceola; in one generation they're hunted down and despised and in the next generation they become treasures."
Kennedy, still fine-featured and handsome, with eyes the color of deep woods spring water, doesn't make much of what he calls the "hero stuff." But he loves to tell stories: about the writers he knew - Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings - and his soul mate Woody Guthrie. Guthrie, now most famous for This Land is Your Land (beloved of generations of schoolchildren who had no idea they were singing a socialist anthem), became an admirer when Alan Lomax at the Library of Congress gave him a copy of Kennedy's first book, Palmetto Country, published in 1942. Guthrie wrote Kennedy a fan letter, praising his "lecturetalks against the KKK and all the rest of the stoolies, gooners, and fonies in general, the raceyhaters, pinkybaiters, deadbrainers, and fraidy cats." The letter is signed "Your Stud Buddy."
He became a constant, if eccentric, houseguest. Kennedy would have to go fetch him from the bus station. One time he found Guthrie crashed out, "sound asleep on the sidewalk in the daytime in downtown Jacksonville, using his guitar case as a pillow."
Kennedy has lived in the Keys, in Miami, in Hungary and in Paris, where he hung around with Richard Wright and Jean-Paul Sartre. But for the past 32 years his home has been a cedar cabin on a dreaming lake south of Jacksonville, a place he calls "Beluthahatchee." The name comes from one of the black Seminole tales collected by Hurston when she worked for the WPA in the 1930s. Kennedy, a master folklorist or, as he prefers to call himself, "po' folkist," was her boss. Beluthahatchee is a sort of Florida Garden of Earthly Delights, a place where "all is forgiven and all is forgotten."
Beluthahatchee smells of inspiration the way heart pine smells of resin. Woody Guthrie wrote fifty-odd songs here. Kennedy himself is at work on six different manuscripts in his upstairs study overlooking the lake, everything from a book of Key West folklore to an autobiography called Dissident at Large. Kennedy's wife, Joyce Ann, a teacher, died 18 months ago and the house is still full of her presence. A foundation they planned together - to promote social justice and environmental stewardship - is moving forward. A snowy egret she befriended still shows up for what Kennedy calls "three squares a day."
Sitting on Kennedy's deck, which sticks out over the water, you can see why he called the place after a Seminole Shangri-La. Just up Highway 13 there are strip malls, four-laned roads, a golf course "community." But here herons fly about over the lake, leggy and languid as Palm Beach debutantes, a very superior cat, some kin to a Himalayan, lounges in the early spring sunshine by Kennedy's chair, and the wind in the trees sounds the whisper of the past. This is the Florida Rawlings and Hurston cherished. The Florida that's almost gone. Despite Beluthahatchee's primordial peace, Kennedy still speaks truth to power: "I like to think I haven't mellowed," he says.
He hasn't. The "Smathers" of Guthrie's song may be long out of office but "duPont" is still around - it's now the St. Joe Company, which means to develop some of Florida's last unpaved places. And segregation laws may be gone, but political leaders still don't get that there's still racism, still inequality around: "If the Bush brothers really think that women and minorities are getting preferential treatment, they should get themselves a sex change, paint themselves black, and check it out."
Kennedy has checked it out. He was ineligible to fight in World War II, owing to a back injury, but he got to thinking about how his classmates had battled fascism in Europe and decided to wage his own war - against the Ku Klux Klan: "I thought it was the least I could do."
In the late 1940s, he pretended he was an encyclopedia salesman named "John Perkins" (a real Perkins, Kennedy's uncle, had been a Grand Titan in the klan) and infiltrated an Atlanta klavern. He paid 10 bucks for a klan robe - a "bargain" according to the "kleagle" who recruited him, what with "the Betsy Ross chapter of the klan's ladies' auxiliary doing all the needlework for free" - swore to "uphold the principles of White Supremacy and the purity of White Womanhood," and observed klan rituals, which were a sort of juvenile mix of Freemasonry and college fraternity complete with signs, handshakes and a rule book called the Kloran.
Kennedy funneled information about the "Dumb Klux" to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, but often went beyond informer to agent provocateur. He got in touch with the writers of the popular Superman radio show. They concocted a battle between the progressive Man of Steel and the racist forces of the grand dragon. Kennedy gave Superman the klan's secret passwords, and before the Invisible Empire knew it, 10-year-olds all over America knew KKK code.
After making it to the rank of "klavalier," Kennedy took his "trunkloads" of evidence to Washington to the House Un-American Activities Committee. He put on his robe and his hood for maximum effect. The congressmen had him thrown out of the Capitol, but not before the press got hold of the story. Atlanta grand dragon Samuel Green raged, offering a reward for any klansman who nailed him: "Kennedy's ass is worth $1,000 a pound!"
Randall Williams, founder of the Klanwatch project at the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, calls Kennedy a "trailblazer" in the struggle against organized racism. Kennedy himself downplays his days as a spy in the house of the grand dragon. He calls the klan "relatively passe" now and says, "Far more dangerous than the bed-sheet brigade are the plainclothed klux on the court and in the halls of government."
As Kennedy sits there, calmly telling stories of evading racist thugs, you can't help but wonder how on earth a boy born to privilege on the banks of the St. Johns, whose father ran a furniture business and whose mother wrote scholarly papers for the United Daughters of the Confederacy, became one of the leading progressives of his time. "With that highly developed social conscience," says Randall Williams, "he must have started in diapers." Maybe he started when the klan beat and raped the Kennedy family maid for "sassing whitefolks." Or when his classmates at Robert E. Lee High School in Jacksonville entertained themselves by knocking black delivery boys off their bicycles into the mud. He didn't think that was fun. His friends kept asking, "What's got into Stet?"
Kennedy went off to the University of Florida in the 1930s, but found his interests lay outside traditional academic study. He became intrigued with folk culture, the railroad gandy dancers and Greek sponge divers and hoodoo practitioners and Seminole shamans, the "folksay" of the Crackers. He took a course in writing from Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, though he says he doesn't recall anything about it (he does remember that she had "piercing eyes" and that she blew her first royalty check in the lingerie department at Cohen's, Jacksonville's best department store). Still, something of Rawlings' hatred of injustice and love of the strangeness of Florida might have helped inspire him toward writing as a career: "Somewhere along the way I decided that words could be very important in the struggle."
But the "politically illiterate" university, blissfully unengaged with the struggles against fascism in Europe and the forced labor that had replaced official slavery in the South, couldn't hold his interest. "I guess I invented independent studies," says Kennedy. "I dropped out."
He shipped his books down to Key West and hitchhiked after them, ending up renting a room with a buddy for $5 a month and lived on 25-cent Spanish bean soup. He decided to become a poet. The creative process included hanging out at Sloppy Joe's, on a stool next to Ernest Hemingway's - Hemingway's stool had his name on it. "He'd drive his jeep around the back and they'd load it up with free liquor for him, having brought in so many tourists," says Kennedy.
He married young, while still a teenager, to a Key West girl. The marriage didn't last, nor did the poetry, but the island stories and folk idioms he collected did. He parlayed his expertise into a job with the Federal Writer's Project of the Works Progress Administration in 1937. "There was a pauper's oath involved," says Kennedy. "You had to swear you had no money, no job, no property and no prospect of getting any of those things. I was imminently qualified."
Zora Neale Hurston, author of Their Eyes Were Watching God and Mules and Men, followed a year later, and the two of them, the revolver-packing Eatonville preacher's daughter and the language-besotted Confederate soldier's grandson, traveled the back roads. One time, Kennedy recalls, "Zora and I were at a turpentine camp near Cross City where we met this octogenarian who'd been born "on the turp'mntine.' I asked why he didn't just leave, and he said "the onliest way out is to die out and you have to die "cause if you tries to leave they'll kill you.' "
"He had a genuine appreciation of the gifts and culture of rural folk that went beyond what you could imagine of a white man at that time," says Valerie Boyd, Hurston's biographer. "He and Zora had the same goals." She sees Kennedy's gathering folkways and "folksay" as part of the struggle against racism: "His interest in the lives and stories of these rural folks led him to study and fight injustice." Randall Williams concurs: "I don't separate it from his civil rights work. If you show the value of African-American traditions and culture, then it's harder for people to hold racist views."
Folklore is subversive. Woody Guthrie understood it, when he asked Kennedy to send him "several best songs that you have collected in your career as a poor folkist. I mean of the sort that make the wives of senators faint when they hear them."
Kennedy's skills with a wire recorder (this was before the days of tape) and knowledge of the conditions in the turpentine camps got him invited to testify in Geneva before a U.N. Commission on forced labor in 1952. America had become somewhat inhospitable, what with the klan and conservative politicians on his case, so he only bought a one-way ticket. He couldn't get a U.S. publisher for his book The Klan Unmasked, even though it's written in a racy, funny hard-boiled style Elmore Leonard might envy, nor would anyone touch his Jim Crow Guide, a searing critique of segregation written as a mock-guidebook. Eventually, the klan expose came out in Britain, and in 1956 Jean-Paul Sartre published the Jim Crow Guide.
Kennedy found other refugees from American racism in France. He and Richard Wright would sit around talking at the Cafe Tourneau. One time Wright told him, "You know, it took me five years of getting lost in the grayness of Paris before I could stop seeing everything in black and white." He stayed in Europe for eight years (Woody Guthrie housesat Beluthahatchee with a World War I shotgun always at the ready in case the klan came calling) but got homesick. "I looked over several continents and 30 countries, searching for something more Floridian than Florida. I found plenty of bathing beauties and palm trees but the weeds weren't right."
Florida, weeds and all, is where he's been ever since, not too far from the banks of the St. Johns, not too far from where he was born, not too far from where he nearly got lynched. In addition to working on his books, he's "talking to Hollywood people" about a film. He's working on his foundation, which would preserve Beluthahatchee for meetings and workshops to "champion human rights under law and in society," or, as Woody Guthrie put it, a place "where you can stick your head in and your neck out and see and get a pretty good whiffle of that stuff I still hear traveling by the name of Freedom."
On Kennedy's blue lake, the herons and egrets fly close to the house, unafraid, though they're startled when his kitchen clock strikes - or chirps - three. "That Yankee bird clock confuses them," says Kennedy. It's one of those Audubon clocks with a different birdsong for each hour, only the species featured are not from around here. Not only were the weeds wrong in other places, the birds were wrong, too. Despite the klan, despite the death threats, despite the way we've nearly destroyed our folk culture, despite the persistence of racism and injustice, Kennedy wouldn't trade his native place for anywhere else. "Florida has been good to me," he says.
- Diane Roberts, a former Times editorial writer, is a professor of English at the University of Alabama.