Lucid, sharp and bitingly funny until the end, Stetson Kennedy, the civil rights activist, journalist, folklorist, author and lecturer who witnessed Florida from its Jim Crow worst to its large role in the election of Barack Obama, died Saturday morning at 9:36 in St. Augustine, where he’d been living for many years. He was 38 days shy of his 95th birthday.
Kennedy’s wife, Sandra Parks, who owns Anastasia Books on St. Augustine’s King Street, was at his side when he died, as was his stepdaughter. Kennedy married Parks in 2006, his sixth, maybe his seventh, marriage. “It’s been a long time since I applied for a wedding license,” Kennedy told wedding guests at the time, recounting how he’d had more trouble acquiring his recent driver’s license. “It’s good through 2012,” he said of the license, “and with Sandra by my side, I hope to stick around long enough to get my money’s worth.”
Parks and Kennedy were last in Palm Coast together on June 28, when Parks delivered a lecture on Florida’s so-called “opportunity scholarship,” the voucher scheme that diverts public money to private schools. Stetson, dozing through much of the lecture at Las Palmas, the independent living facility in Town Center, sat on a couch as Parks spoke.
“My husband Stetson Kennedy has never heard this speech,” Parks said before beginning, “so I’d better be good. No pressure.”
Just last March Stetson delivered a lecture at his namesake school, Stetson University (“Stetson at Stetson: Legendary Floridian Social Justice Activist in Conversation with Stetson Student Leaders of Social Justice Initiatives.”)
Kennedy was in no pain when he died, a statement on Kennedy’s website reads. “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 made his name with a series of books in the 1940s and 50s, beginning with Palmetto Country, on Florida Folklore, in 1942 and more: Kennedy, The Times wrote in its review of the book, is “one of the few writers who sees clearly the economic, political and social implications to be found in folk-say and folk-tale and he has quoted liberally from the works of the people with telling effect.”
In Southern Exposure, a book published in 1946, Kennedy explored the emergence of the South from World War II, but not from the racism and feudalism, the “hate-mongers, race-racketeers, and terrorists who swore that apartheid must go on forever,” and who would become his arch-enemies as his journalism took a more activist turn in the years ahead.
Kennedy’s campaign of exposing the South’s hate-mongers culminated in 1954 with the publication of a book then called I Rode With the KKK, later called The Klan Unmasked. The book was the result of Kennedy’s infiltration of the KKK as an encyclopedia salesman. At the time, he was the director of fact-finding for the southeastern office of the Anti-Defamation League and director of the Anti-Nazi League of New York. His work, unraveling the Klan’s activities on a radio program–the “Superman” radio series–helped rein in the activities of the Klan, and led to numerous threats against Kennedy’s life. “They were afraid to do anything. They knew that somebody was on the inside. They had first-class detectives looking, and I was trying hard not to be caught,” Kennedy said.
But the book was also criticized for inaccuracies and exaggeration when it was examined anew by the New York Times authors of the Freakonomics column, Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt. They wrote that Kennedy passed off as his own experiences what had actually been secondhand information and that he didn’t credit the work of other undercover agents who achieved similar results. Kennedy’s infiltration of the Klan, however, has not been disputed.
Kennedy was born on Oct. 5, 1916, in Jacksonville. “Kennedy,” Saturday’s summation of his life reads at his website, “was one of the pioneer folklore collectors during the first half of the twentieth century. As a teenager, he began collecting white and African American folklore material while he was collecting “a dollar down and dollar a week” accounts for his father, a furniture merchant. He left the University of Florida, in 1937, to join the WPA Florida Writers’ Project, and was soon, at the age of 21, put in charge of folklore, oral history, and ethnic studies.”
The summary goes on: “A founding member and past president of the Florida Folklore Society, Kennedy is a recipient of the Florida Folk Heritage Award, the Florida Governor’s Heartland Award as well as an inductee of the Florida Artists Hall of Fame. In addition to his passion for folklore, Kennedy has become friends with many literary giants. Including: Erskine Caldwell, who became so interested in his work in an essay competition, that he went on to edit his novel on Floridian folklore, Palmetto Country. He was Zora Neale Hurston’s friend and boss in the Florida WPA. While he was living in Paris in the mid 1950’s, Jean Paul Sartre published The Jim Crow Guide, after Kennedy could not find any interested American publishers.”