Feature

Stetson Kennedy, 1916–2011

The writer who unmasked the Ku Klux Klan

A back injury prevented Stetson Kennedy from joining the military in World War II, so he decided to serve his country in a different way. “All my classmates were overseas fighting Nazis,” the author and folklorist said in 2005. “In our own backyard we had our own racist terrorists, the Ku Klux Klan. And it occurred to me that someone needed to do a number on them.” Kennedy infiltrated the group and gave up their secrets to journalists, government investigators, and the Anti-Defamation League. Those revelations—chronicled in his semi-fictional 1954 book, I Rode With the Ku Klux Klan—earned him threatening phone calls from Klansmen into his 90s.

Kennedy first witnessed racism growing up in Jacksonville, Fla., where his young playmates would knock black grocery boys off their bikes and hurl abuse at his family’s maid “for fun.” He left town to study at the University of Florida, but “didn’t stay in school long,” said the Jacksonville Florida Times-Union. Kennedy moved to Key West and became head of the New Deal–funded Florida Folklore Project, where he was tasked with recording the songs and voices of orange pickers, turpentiners, and cigar makers.

The KKK was a more dangerous subject. After sneaking into the Klan under a false identity, Kennedy testified in federal court about its attacks on black, Catholic, and Jewish centers in Miami, and salvaged evidence “from the grand dragon’s wastebasket” that revealed the group owed $685,000 in taxes, said the Los Angeles Times. He later worked as a consultant to the Superman radio show, telling producers about the Klan’s rituals for a story line titled “Clan of the Fiery Cross.”

“He was Florida’s Homer, a talking history book, a troublemaker, a scamp,” said the St. Petersburg, Fla., Times. Despite winning numerous awards for his folklore and civil-rights work, Kennedy said the highlight of his career was the election of Alvin Brown, an African-American, as Jacksonville’s mayor. His wife, Sandra Parks, said that shortly before he died, at a hospice outside the city, Kennedy declared that “every person has a cause, and his was finished.”

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