RIP Stetson Kennedy, Florida Folklorist, Writer, and Human Rights Activist

Stetson Kennedy died today at 94 in his native city, Jacksonville, FL.

Kennedy began his career collecting folklore throughout the South in 1937 after leaving the University of Florida. Kennedy worked for the Works Progress Administration’s Florida Writers’ Project, traveling with Zora Neale Hurston to collect oral histories and folk tales from both black and white Floridians alike. In the 1940s, Kennedy worked for the Atlanta office of the CIO. He also infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in the 1940s and ’50s, exposing many of the racist organization’s secrets and alerting the world to the intrinsic injustice of the Jim Crow system in Southern states.

When Kennedy ran (quite unsuccessfully) for Governor of Florida in 1952, Woody Guthrie wrote the song “Stetson Kennedy” to support his good friend (Wilco and Billy Bragg put the lyrics to music decades later). Kennedy’s anti-Jim Crow, early Civil Rights platform didn’t win him much popularity throughout the state, and when his home in Fruit Cove was firebombed, he moved to France. It was there that the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre published Kennedy’s The Jim Crow Guide—but the book was too controversial for US publication, despite multiple translations across Europe. Even more incendiary was Kennedy’s expose The Klan Unmasked (1954), which helped to undermine the organization’s secret authority in the South.

Just as Kennedy’s contribution to the Civil Rights movement cannot be underestimated, neither can his work in collecting and preserving Florida folklore (as well as Southern folklore in general). Kennedy helped found the Florida Folklore Society and also served as president, and volumes like Palmetto County and Grits and Grunts: Folkloric Key West will remain staples of Florida folk culture. In 2009, Kennedy bequeathed his papers and personal library to the Civic Media Center in Gainesville, FL, a nonprofit info center and alternative library devoted to human rights, environmental protection, and other causes. Kennedy was closely involved with the CMC since its inception in 1993.

Kennedy was a vibrant fount of cultural and historical force, a man who worked his entire, long life not just to preserve folklore and its history, but also to show the radical place that folk culture occupies throughout time, linking core human values from generation to generation. Stetson Kennedy will live through his legacy.

Kennedy’s website sheds light on his final moments—

He was with his wife and stepdaughter, He was in no pain. And as recently as 4 days ago he was lucid and talking. The doctor, checking his mental faculties asked him questions “where are you from”, Kennedy replied, “The planet Earth”

Stetson’s wishes were for a party and not a funeral. A luncheon at Beluthahatchee will be held October 1st.

Kennedy on This American Life.

Read a 2011 interview with Kennedy in Vice Magazine.

3 thoughts on “RIP Stetson Kennedy, Florida Folklorist, Writer, and Human Rights Activist”

  1. I was lucky enough to see Stetson Kennedy speak a few years ago. He talked about how, since he was unable to fight the fascists overseas in WW2, he decided to fight them at home. His infiltration of the KKK makes him a truly heroic figure — he was risking his life on a regular basis, just as sure as any soldier on a battlefield does. As magical as it was to hear him reminisce about his past, I was equally impressed by his level of contemporary political engagement — a defiance of the stereotype that “old people live in the past.” He was closely monitoring the American political landscape, ever vigilant to the rise of hate groups, “Patriot” militias, and right-wing extremism — recognizing in them the same old racist poison he had battled for decades.

    Stetson Kennedy: a great Southerner, a powerful and humbling inspiration to us all.


    1. Thanks so much for your comment, Patrick, which I think is both more insightful and personal than the obit I wrote above.

      I think it was actually *you* who hipped me to Stetson Kennedy, probably in the seventh grade (?) — I’m sure your parents were fans of his…


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