- William Stetson Kennedy (1916–2011)
Stetson Kennedy was a folklorist, oral historian, writer, anti-poverty government employee, and a lifelong Floridian. Most of all, he was a tireless activist for liberal causes throughout the twentieth century—battling against racism, poverty, anti-immigration and anti-labor movements, and fighting for environmental protection. He died on August 27, 2011, at the age of 94, but his legacy lives on in the Stetson Kennedy Foundation, with a mission to “carry forward mankind’s unending struggle for human rights in a free, peaceful, harmonious, democratic, just, humane, bounteous and joyful world, to nurture our cultural heritages, and to faithfully discharge our commitment of stewardship over Mother Earth and all her progeny” (http://www.stetsonkennedy.com/foundation.html). Stetson was a friend and mentor to me and many others, and he will be missed.
Stetson Kennedy was an accidental folklorist, born to a prominent family in Jacksonville, Florida, where his father owned a large furniture business. As a teenager, Stetson worked in the family business to collect the “dollar down, dollar-a-week” debts owed by the poorest residents who rented furniture from his father. He began to write down the folk idiom, colloquial speech, and personal stories that he heard in the neighborhoods of Jacksonville. At the same time, his consciousness of the class struggle and racial inequity that pervaded his home state of Florida was raised. He determined to write about what he heard and saw, using the vernacular speech and folklore he was collecting as a vehicle.
Stetson studied for one year at the University of Florida, where he met folklorist Alton Morris and author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. He dropped out of college to move to Key West and continue to do what we now call “fieldwork”—collecting the folklore and oral histories of Cubans, Conchs, and other characters in the southernmost reaches of Florida. It was during this time that he met Alan Lomax, and his work came to the attention of Benjamin Botkin, who tapped him (at the age of twenty-one) to be the Head of the Folklore, Ethnic Studies and Oral History Unit of Florida’s Federal Writers Project (FWP). In this way, he became Zora Neale Hurston’s supervisor on the FWP and worked with her, Alan Lomax, Mary Elizabeth Barnicle, Robert Cook and others to document Florida folklife. This material was used in the Florida State Guidebook for the FWP and for Stetson’s first book, Palmetto Country (1942).
When the United States entered World War II and the FWP quickly folded, Stetson infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in Stone Mountain, Georgia, to “fight fascism at home.” He gathered evidence and documentary material for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, journalist Drew Pearson, and the producers of the “Superman” radio series. His efforts to document the Klan’s terrorist activities by exposing their folklore (secret passwords, handshakes, etc.) to a mass audience resulted in the loss of their nonprofit status in Georgia. The Klavern at Stone Mountain subsequently filed for bankruptcy. When Kennedy came out from undercover to testify, his life was in jeopardy and his land in North Florida was set afire by Klan members. He published a book that documented the culture of several “homegrown hate groups,” Southern Exposure, in 1946. Stetson at that point went overseas and eventually landed in Paris, where he became friends with Richard Wright and Jean-Paul Sartre. It was Sartre who made it possible for Kennedy to publish his exposé of the Klan, I Rode with the Ku Klux Klan (1954) and his satirical Jim Crow Guide to the U.S.A. (1956). It was not until many years later that he was able to find a publisher in the United States for these works. [End Page 234]
During his life, Stetson Kennedy befriended many Southern activists, including Myles Horton of the Highlander Research and Education Center, and Virginia and Clifford Durr of Montgomery, Alabama. He also became close friends with Woody Guthrie, who had contacted Stetson to praise Palmetto Country. Woody would travel to Florida in 1950, and he lived on Stetson’s land for over eighteen months, writing eighty-eight songs, of which a...