An Interview With Stetson Kennedy

History Interviews Politics Southern


Imagine standing under the night sky on the side of a mountain, surrounded by a thousand Ku Klux Klan members, all wearing their ghastly hoods and sheets. A huge burning cross casting monstrous shadows over the proceedings. You are also wearing a Klan sheet, but you are not one of them. You are there as a spy, to report their illegal activities to the police and expose their tactics of hate and intimidation. They have made it clear that they will kill anyone who betrays them. If they find out who you are, you're in trouble.

That is exactly what Stetson Kennedy did in the late 1940's. He wrote about it in his classic 1954 book, The Klan Unmasked, a gripping account of the experience. Disappointingly, the police and the FBI were reluctant to take direct action against the Klan, even when presented with hard evidence of arson, vandalism, assault, inciting riots, and murder. It turned out that many policemen and government officials were themselves Klan members. In fact, 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.

Kennedy 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.

Stetson Kennedy was born in 1916 in Jacksonville, Florida. When he was very young, his family had a black maid named Flo who was almost like a mother to him. Flo was brutally assaulted by white racists for ?talking back? to a white bus driver when he 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.?

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 named as a Literary Landmark, 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 while some excellent acoustic guitar and singing were performed.

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: But 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 around and tape recorded accounts of people all around these parts and I got all these true stories from people out here about forced labor.

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. So that way, I?m not selling out.?

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.

I decided to ask him about music.

BE: Do you ever listen to bands like Rage Against the Machine?

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.


Christine Ledkoske of the Bartram Trail Friends of the Library opening the dedication ceremony



Carol Fitzgerald introduces Stetson Kennedy


Nora Guthrie


MaVynee Betsch - "The Beach Lady"


Here I am sitting at Stetson Kennedy's desk



Kennedy addressing the crowd


Nora Guthrie cuts the ribbon at the door of Kennedy's cabin


Al Scortino, Paul Garfinkel, and David Milam


Singer/Guitarist Lars Din also performed


An egret nest on top of a tree rising from the lake


Al, Paul,and David
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