Tarnished in twilight
For legendary folklorist and activist Stetson Kennedy, whose health is failing, there is a new battle - for his reputation. He is accused of exaggerating his unmasking of the KKK.
By JEFF KLINKENBERG
Published January 22, 2006
FRUIT GROVE - The old man, perpetually out of breath at the age of 89, shuffles to the telephone at his North Florida home and hears the latest.
"What? WHAT? No, no, NO! I'm going to fight this," he barks into the mouthpiece. "This is my reputation we're talking about."
This time it isn't the Ku Klux Klan saying bad things about the Florida folklorist and civil rights activist Stetson Kennedy. It's other people.
It's a New York Times freelance writer who is the co-author of a bestseller, Freakonomics. It's an amateur historian who has feuded with Kennedy for a decade.
They say Kennedy's celebrated exposure of the KKK a half century ago was based as much on fiction as fact. They say he dramatized his material and made himself the hero of a book called The Klan Unmasked, originally published as I Rode With the Ku Klux Klan.
"I did dramatize some of my reporting about the Klan when I wrote that book," says Kennedy, better known for scholarly works such as Florida: A Guide to the Southernmost State, published by the Federal Writers' Project in 1939, and Palmetto Country, a warts-and-all portrait of rural Florida in 1942. "I thought that everybody knew I was trying to reach a big audience with the Klan book."
Not everybody, apparently.
Between 1943 and 1948, Kennedy, already an established folklorist who collected stories and songs from ordinary people, investigated the Klan in Georgia, Alabama and Florida and handed over information to the federal government and the Anti-Defamation League. Some material also showed up in the newspaper columns of the famous Drew Pearson in Washington; some inspired 16 episodes about the Klan on The Adventures of Superman radio show.
Then, in 1954, Kennedy published a pot-boiler about it, combining the experiences of an anonymous Klan undercover investigator with his own. The book was unlike anything Kennedy had ever written. Although based on truth, it was still a yarn - a yarn that featured blazing guns, long-legged Klan molls and the kind of sensational cover that often graced 10-cent pulp novels.
Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt praised Kennedy in last year's Freakonomics, which has remained on the bestseller list for 39 weeks. After publication, they were chagrined to learn from someone who has tangled with the feisty Kennedy over the years that I Rode With the Ku Klux Klan, the primary source for their chapter, could not be trusted as history.
Now the two writers are revising the Klan chapter of Freakonomics for a new edition. They also wrote an unflattering story about Kennedy in the New York Times Magazine on Jan. 8, suggesting he is less than honest at best, a shameless self-promoter at worst. The story stung Kennedy, and his admirers, like a bullwhip.
"Shameful," says Peggy Bulger, the nation's folklife director at the Library of Congress, of the magazine story. A longtime protege of Kennedy, she says, "He deserves much better."
She and others wrote letters to the New York Times. They are scheduled to be published in the magazine today.A strong will
"In all modesty, I am a hard man to discredit," Stetson Kennedy says immodestly.
Wobbling to his feet, the old man's first impulse is to engage in some symbolic shadow boxing or to clear his throat in triumph. Hmmmph! Aaargh! Bushwah! Then suddenly his courage wilts and he looks anxious. He could be just another old man frightened about the end.
Kennedy is beloved in some circles - he's a member of the Florida Artists Hall of Fame and received the Florida Folk Heritage Award and the Florida Governor's Heartland Award. But he also likes to be the center of attention and drops names endlessly. Disagree with him at your peril: He tends to be dismissive of folks who tell him he is wrong.
Pills rattling in his pocket, he shuffles through his home near the St. Johns River, looking for that $199 prescription rat-a-tat tatting outside the range of his hearing aid. "I just had the pills a minute ago," he mutters under his breath, which, by the way, sounds tortured. The pills in his pocket, which he will remember in a moment, are supposed to treat his infected lungs. For now, there is nothing he can do about the oozing wound on the top of his bald head, a souvenir of his latest skin cancer surgery.
"I'm falling apart," he says, then stumbles to the ringing telephone. "Better hurry," he announces to the caller who requests a visit. "I'm at death's door."
He lives in near poverty in a rickety cypress home perched on a swamp. The dark and musty living room serves as a shrine to himself and his lifelong buddy, folk singer Woody Guthrie, who often stayed with him.
Dirty dishes line the counter. An apple lies shriveled in a dusty bowl. He lives alone; his wife died in 2002. "Where's the phone?" he asks. He left it on the kitchen table. He can't find it among stale croissants, candles, vitamins, a sugar bowl, a hunk of lemon cake, three vials of medicine, a checkbook and a slice of apple pie from McDonald's, age unknown.
"I swear my memory is going," Kennedy says.
He finally locates the telephone.
Eighty-nine years old.Exposing the inside
He was born in Jacksonville in 1916. After a year at the University of Florida, he accepted a job with a New Deal program collecting information for a Florida guidebook. He traveled the countryside toting a recording machine as big as a coffee table to capture stories and songs of people who seldom ended up in history books.
A bad back kept Kennedy out of the Army during World War II. Last year, he told a National Public Radio interviewer that instead of fighting Nazis he decided to take on the Klan.
Calling himself John Perkins, he learned a lot about the Klan. He says he went undercover at the risk of his life. He had help from an insider who did not want to be named. They provided secret Klan names and rituals to law enforcement officials and the media. At one time there was a reward, posted by the Klan, for Kennedy's hide.
"He was the most hated man in North Florida," says Gary Mormino, a University of South Florida professor and author of Land of Sunshine, State of Dreams: A Social History of Florida.
If Kennedy's work subverting the Klan was sublime, the book that followed was a tad ridiculous.From sedate to Spillane
In history circles, I Rode With the Ku Klux Klan is often cited, but seldom read. Sometimes, Kennedy tells people he never read it himself after he wrote it. "I awoke with a start, my hand already instinctively reaching for the .32 automatic I kept under my pillow," is how the book begins. It's as if the sedate, balding, small-boned Kennedy handed over his notes to Mickey Spillane and asked to be turned into a superhero.
"I showed a version of my draft to a friend," Kennedy says. "He said, "No, don't write it like that. Act it out. Use a lot of dialogue. Give it action.' That's how I did it."
In one chapter, after Kennedy survives an anxious moment in the office of a Klan sympathizer, a pair of loose Klan women sashay into the room looking for fun. "Dottie perched on the edge of the desk, crossed her legs, and looked at me coyly over her highball," Kennedy writes. "I leaned back . . ."
The book did well enough to be published in a paperback edition, Passage to Violence: A Shocking Story of Naked Terror. Above the title is a colorful portrayal of a sexy woman revealing a lot of cleavage.A serious split
As he has gotten older, Kennedy has become, perhaps, even a little more imperious about himself and his achievements, especially when the subject is civil rights and the Klan. In a room full of experts, he prefers to sit at the top of the heap.
More than a dozen years ago, a young writer named Ben Green looked him up. Green was an accomplished writer, the author of The Finest Kind, an excellent account of the Manatee County commercial fishing village called Cortez.
Green wanted to know more about an African-American couple, civil rights activists Harry and Harriette Moore, who were killed by a bomb placed under their house in Brevard County in 1951. Green and Kennedy decided to write a book about the Moores together. But then everything fell apart.
The two men tell different stories about why they fell out.
According to Kennedy, it was because Green refused to believe that law enforcement agencies had either aided in the murders or covered them up. For Green, it was only about facts. "The more I looked into them, the less I trusted Stetson," he says.
Green, who lives in Tallahassee, traveled to the New York Public Library's Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, where Kennedy had donated hundreds of his Klan notes and records.
Green says he spent months perusing them for information about the Moores, but also looking for documents relating to Kennedy's Klan work. He says he found nothing to support Kennedy's claims in his book that he had personally infiltrated the Klan and deserved to be called a hero. When he confronted Kennedy with this information, Green says, Kennedy grew angry and threatened legal action.
Before His Time: The Untold Story of Harry T. Moore, America's First Civil Rights Martyr came out in 1999. It carried only one byline, Green's, and received favorable reviews all over the country.
Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything published last year to acclaim. In a notable chapter, Kennedy is singled out for the way he damaged the Klan by releasing reams of secret information about how it operated.
When Green read Freakonomics, he was frustrated to see Kennedy treated like a hero. He was especially dismayed to read about Kennedy's contributions to the Superman radio show. Kennedy's work indeed had inspired the episodes. But the episodes, contrary to Kennedy's frequent claims, did not include the weekly release of secret Klan rituals. Green says he did nothing at first because he felt that taking on Kennedy would be like criticizing Santa Claus. Then he changed his mind and asked an acquaintance to contact one of the authors, Stephen Dubner.
"I really didn't want my name involved in it," Green says. "I told Dubner to go look at Stetson's records and make your own decision."
Later, Dubner persuaded Green to go on the record for his New York Times story.Coming up empty
Dubner is a high-powered writer who lives in New York. Before Freakonomics, he wrote a couple of bestsellers, Confessions of a Hero-Worshipper, about his lifelong obsession with the hall-of-fame football player Franco Harris, and Turbulent Souls: A Catholic Son's Return To His Jewish Family. He shows up from time to time on Good Morning America and Nightline.
He is reluctant to talk on the record about Stetson Kennedy. "I have no desire to damage anybody's reputation, much less the reputation of an 89-year-old person," he says.
Dubner went to see Kennedy. He says he asked Kennedy about the many quotations in the Klan book. Obviously, Kennedy carried no tape recorder in the 1940s. So how had he taken notes in the middle of Klan meetings? He says Kennedy said he had his own way of taking shorthand and that he wrote things down when he could.
He says he asked Kennedy to provide samples of his notes, but that Kennedy failed to come up with anything.
Of course, Kennedy's Klan stuff happened long before Dubner was born. Like many people beginning their ninth decade, Kennedy has moments of lucidity and moments of confusion.
Perhaps those notes were on the kitchen table, hidden under the bowl containing that withered apple. At any rate, Dubner says he left Kennedy's home disappointed, thinking of Kennedy less as a reporter and more as a propagandist.Building a defense
End of story?
Across the country, folklorists have risen in protest.
Peggy Bulger, the Library of Congress folklorist, interviewed Kennedy many times when she was working on her doctorate. Dubner, in turn, interviewed her and quoted her in his New York Times story. She says he misrepresented her opinion. She feels disgusted that Dubner posted old documents, supplied by Kennedy, on the Freakonomics Web site without saying Kennedy provided them. "It made it look as if they had uncovered something. But what they put on their Web site was already on the record, in a public library. If Stetson were trying to hide anything, why would he put it in the library?
"Stetson certainly investigated the Klan. There are hundreds of documents that support that. As for the book, years ago he told me that he dramatized his material for effect. I put that in my doctoral dissertation. And now Dubner represents it like it's something new."
The story in the New York Times also bothered Nathan Salsburg, a folklorist in New York who is helping Kennedy put together an anthology of his work. When he read allegations that Kennedy might have misrepresented his role in exposing the Klan, he headed for Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem and immersed himself in microfilm.
"I went through the records Stetson left the library years ago. I have found numerous records that document Stetson infiltrated the Klan, that he went undercover. The documentation is all there. It's hard to miss. How could those guys have missed it?"
Salsburg says he is putting that documentation together should anyone else want to read it.Supporting Stetson
In his North Florida home, Kennedy shuffles from room to room, looking for records, names, anything that will tell the world he is not a fake. Sometimes he finds what he is looking for, sometimes he doesn't. "Happened a long time ago," he says. "My memory isn't as good as it used to be." He comes up with an interview he did with a Klan newspaper. He comes up with the name of an African-American man he joined at a lunch-counter protest a half century ago.
"I have to rest," he says after a while. He takes four naps a day.
Phone rings. He has been expecting bad news from a doctor about his lungs.
"What?" he says into the mouthpiece. "WHAT?" He has to remove his hearing aids so he can make things out.
"Oh," he says, and hands the phone over to a visitor sitting at the kitchen table. It's not the doctor after all.
"HIYA!" says the raspy voice on the other end of the line. "I'M A FRIEND OF STETSON. THIS IS STUDS TERKEL."
Terkel, the never bashful 93-year-old oral historian from Chicago and author of many books, wants to say a few words about his pal.
"TAKE THIS DOWN!" Terkel barks, sounding like he has been gargling with glass.
"STETSON KENNEDY, COMMA, IN ALL THE DELIGHTFUL YEARS I'VE KNOWN HIM, COMMA, HAS ALWAYS QUESTIONED AUTHORITY - WHETHER IT BE THE ALDERMAN OR THE PRESIDENT. HE HAS ALWAYS ASKED THE QUESTION, QUOTE, "WHY?' CLOSED QUOTE. WHETHER IT BE WAGING A WAR ON AN OUTRAGEOUS LIE OR ANY BEHAVIOR HE CONSIDERS UNDEMOCRATIC, HE HAS ALWAYS ASKED THE PROVOCATIVE QUESTION. IN SHORT, HE COULD WELL BE DESCRIBED AS A TROUBLEMAKER IN THE BEST SENSE OF THE WORD. WITH A DOZEN STETSON KENNEDYS WE CAN TRANSFORM OUR SOCIETY INTO ONE OF TRUTH, GRACE AND BEAUTY."
Terkel draws a breath.
"GOT THAT? READ IT BACK, WILL YOU? OKAY. OKAY. HOW DOES THAT SOUND? IT SOUNDS GOOD TO ME. IT'S A NICE PIECE OF WRITING. I HOPE IT HELPS STETSON. HE'S A GREAT GUY. GOODBYE."
- Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at 727 893-8727 and email@example.comON THE WEB
The Web site for the book Freakonomics is www.freakonomics.com. It includes the New York Times Magazine article about Stetson Kennedy. To hear a National Public Radio interview with Kennedy, click on www.npr.org and search for "Stetson Kennedy." To hear The Adventures of Superman radio shows about "The Clan of the Fiery Cross," go to http://oldtimeradio.homeip.net/otr/superman4/