This interview took place in 2004. Parts of this page include photos and events that occurred on other dates.
Stetson Kennedy was born in 1916 in Jacksonville, Florida. At the age of 21, he joined the WPA’s Federal Writers’ Project. He worked to collect oral history, folklore, and ethnic studies. At various times he worked Zora Neal Hurston and Alan Lomax.
“I joined the Klan in the hope of breaking it up,” he wrote.
Kennedy risked his life by joining the KKK as a spy, to report their illegal activities to the police. Kennedy’s classic 1954 book, The Klan Unmasked, has 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. Nevertheless, no one disputes that Kennedy did, in fact, infiltrate the inner circles of the Klan and helped bring certain members to justice.
It was often an uphill battle to get the police and the FBI to take direct action against the Klan, even when presented with evidence of arson, vandalism, assault, inciting riots, and murder. Kennedy says some of the Klan robes weren’t quite long enough to cover the shoes and trouser cuffs of what looked suspiciously like police uniforms, reminding me of the Rage Against the Machine lyrics, “Some of those that work forces are the same that burn crosses.”
Above: Stetson and UNF Professor Keith Cartwright at Stetson’s 90th birthday party.
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 on April 15th 2004, in Fruit Cove, Florida, at a ceremony in which Stetson’s 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 enjoyed mingling, food and drink, and the music of three acoustic guitar players.
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.
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.
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.
Bill Ectric: 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?
Stetson Kennedy: 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 Machine, with a political message?
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.
Stetson Kennedy died in 2011 at the age of 94. Stetson had requested that his passing be honored by a celebration. Charlie Patton reported: