Stetson Kennedy, speaking at the Literary
Landmark ceremony at Beluthahatchee
Stetson Kennedy was born in 1916 in Jacksonville, Florida. When he
was very young, Stetson says, his family employed a maid named Flo
who was almost like a mother to him. Flo, an African American, was
brutally assaulted by white racists for "talking back" to a white bus
driver who refused to give her the correct change. Kennedy never
forgot this. As he later said, "I joined the Klan in the hope of
breaking it up."
At the risk of life and limb, Kennedy joined the KKK as a spy, to
report their illegal activities to the police. Kennedy's classic 1954
book, The Klan Unmasked, has recently come under fire because it
attributes all of the undercover work to the first-person narrator of
the book, when in fact, Stetson has freely stated that some of the
events happened to him, while other events happened to one of
his associates. The book's publisher recommended the rewrite that
would focus all the action on one central character. In spite of this,
no one disputes that Kennedy did, in fact, infiltrate the inner
circles of the Klan and incurred their deadly wrath by revealing
secrets of the organization and bringing certain members to
justice. At one point, the Klan even placed a bounty on Stetson
It was often an uphill battle to get the police and the FBI to take
direct action against the Klan, and Kennedy also had trouble finding
a publisher for his books. Before The Klan Unmasked, he had
written a book called The Jim Crow Guide, which covered the
shameful segregation rules in America which required, among other
things, for blacks to use separate water fountains and eat in
different restaurants from whites. That book was finally published
in France by Jean-Paul Sartre. It's not really surprising that Sartre
would be interested in Kennedy's work. It was Sartre who said,
"Existence precedes essence," meaning that we have the ability to
shape what we are by our actions.
I recently had the opportunity to ask Mr. Kennedy some questions,
first by phone and then in person on April 15th, 2004, at a
ceremony in which his homestead, Beluthahatchee, was officially
designated a Literary Landmark by the Friends of Libraries USA, in
part because of Kennedy's work and in part because Woody Guthrie
wrote so many songs there. The crowd mingled, old friends greeted
one another, young people got involved, refreshments were
served, all backed by excellent acoustic guitar and singing .
Also present was Woody Guthrie's daughter Nora Guthrie (sister of
Arlo), and MaVynee Betsch, known as "The Beach Lady" because of
her efforts to secure Federal legislation to preserve American Beach.
Left: Christine Lepkoske
of the Bartram Trail
Friends of the Library,
opening the ceremony
All photos by Bill Ectric
except upper left picture
of Stetson Kennedy
talking to Bill. I'm still
trying to find out who
took that one.
Carol Fitzgerald of the Florida Center for
the Book introduces Stetson Kennedy
BE: What were you doing in France at that time?
SK: I had heard that there was a convention in Geneva,
Switzerland in 1952 regarding forced labor. I contacted them
because I knew that forced labor was happening right in this
area. But when I called them, they said I was too late. The
meeting was already adjourned. But finally they said if I was
willing to pay my own expenses and get there in ten days,
they would hear what I have to say. I told them, "Great! I'll
bring people who can testify" and they said, "No, no, don't
bring a bunch of people!" So I went out and recorded
accounts of people who lived around these parts and who
worked in the turpentine factories. They were required to
buy all their supplies from the company stores, which cost
more than the wages they were paid, so they were
dependent on the turpentine companies and could never
leave. Or if they left, they were hunted down and arrested
for the debts they owed to the company.
BE: When I read in The Klan Unmasked that President
Eisenhower refused to ratify the Convention against
Genocide, which many other countries voted in favor of, it
reminded me of the current Bush administration's
disagreement with the United Nations on Iraq. Why do you
think our leaders sometimes take this path?
SK: You'll have to ask someone besides me for that answer. I
don't know why our government does some of the things
they do! What is your interest in all this?
BE: Well, I'm a writer, or at least I want to be one. I want to
make my mark as a writer but I want to write about things
that are important, like civil rights.
SK: Well, I don't recall so much wanting to be a writer. My
goal was to lay stuff on people and make them think. Things
needed to be told.
BE: Were there times in the Klan that were really scary?
SK: Pretty much all the time! Whenever I thought I had been
found out. Or when I had to sit in a room full of Klansmen at
the courthouse, waiting to be called as a witness.
BE: Do you ever listen to bands like Rage Against the
SK: I've heard so many things, I can't remember them all. If
they are politically active, the "more the merrier" I say. We
need all the help we can get.
MaVynee Betsch, known as "The Beach
Lady" because of her efforts to secure
Federal legislation to preserve American
|Nora Guthrie cuts the ribbon leading into
Stetson Kennedy's house
Russ Davis (above)
and Lars Din (right)
performed at both
Bill Ectric: How did you become friends with Woody Guthrie?
Stetson Kennedy: I wrote a book called Palmetto Country in 1942, and
Alan Lomax, the music historian, read it and liked it, so he passed it on
to Woody. Woody sent me some fan mail. He wrote this one long letter
on the back of the dust jacket of the book. [laughs] All written out on
the back of the dust cover! The original letter has turned up in
someone's possession in North Carolina.
BE: I thought the letter was here among your other archives.
SK: The people who own the letter were nice enough to
send a full-sized color copy of it for display here, but we're
still in negotiations for the original.
BE: How did it come about that Jean Paul Sartre published
your book, The Jim Crow Guide?
SK: Well, I happened to be in Paris, and nobody in the United
States wanted to publish it. You know, it was fifty years from
the time I wrote it before it was published in the U.S. But
while I was in France I met Sartre and he liked it.
|Nora Guthrie (Arlo's sister)