By Rick Bowers
We recently lost a champion of the civil rights movement. We also lost a colorful character with a flair for drama.
Stetson Kennedy was a folklorist, activist, author and spy with a lifelong passion to eradicate racism from our cultural landscape. He was also a perpetual self-promoter who took flack for embellishing his exploits and hyping his accomplishments. On Aug. 27, Kennedy died at age 94 at a hospice near his home in St. Augustine Fla. His death closed the curtain on an era that few of us today can even imagine – when racism ruled as the social norm and bigotry hid behind hoods and robes.
Back in the 1940s, Kennedy worked with a team of infiltrators to get inside the Ku Klux Klan. Their goal was to expose the secrets of the invisible empire to civil rights organizations, law enforcement authorities and the media. Kennedy filed reports to his sponsors in the civil rights community revealing secrets he gleaned at KKK meetings. He also served as a handler for a deeply embedded mole who gained access to the most militant factions of the infamous Nathan Bedford Forrest Klavern No. 1 in Atlanta, Georgia. Kennedy leaked sensitive KKK information to friendly journalists and even advised the producers of the Adventures of Superman radio show, who were creating a 16-part series for kids that pitted the Man of Steel against the men of hate.
Just a couple weeks before his death, I spent most of a day with Kennedy at his home in St. Augustine. I was there to conduct the final interview for my upcoming book Superman versus the Ku Klux Klan – the True Story of How the Iconic Superhero Battled the Men of Hate. (National Geographic Press, Jan. 2012.) That interview culminated a year of research into Kennedy, which included studying his extensive writings, pouring through his papers, tracking down old spy reports and weighing the praise of his allies and barbs of his critics. In the end, I had no doubt that Stetson Kennedy was one of those characters who – despite his flaws – had to be credited for making a positive mark on history. Despite his tendencies to exaggerate the record and play the hero, Kennedy’s dedication to his cause remained strong right up to his final days. Even as he warned me that his health was failing, Kennedy talked about history and social issues with a gleam in his eyes and wry sense of humor, like the time he declined to answer one of my questions because, he smiled, “I have you pegged as a CIA agent!” For me, the best way to address his legacy is to look back at his life.
Stetson Kennedy was born in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1916, and grew up in a white-columned house of a traditional Southern family that boasted blood ties to Confederate war heroes and wealthy cotton planters. Even as a boy he recoiled at racism and resented the presence of the KKK in his community. “I’ve always felt like an alien in the land of my birth,” he recalled later.
After a year at the University of Florida he moved to Key West to take a job with the Florida Writer’s Project — a Depression-era program that provided work to unemployed writers, editors, and historians. Lugging around a clumsy recording machine that used a sapphire needle to cut sound directly onto a 12-inch acetate disc, he collected the life stories, tall tales, folk songs and fables of ordinary people. He never forgot visiting the back-woods camps where black workers served as indentured servants to their white bosses. “Why don’t you leave and get out of it?’ he asked one elderly worker. The man responded: “The onliest way out is to die out.”
Kept out of World War II by a bad back, he decided to fight fascism at home. As a writer, he penned dozens of exposes for newspapers ranging from left-leaning PM to the African American Pittsburg Courier. Under his byline flowed account after account of KKK violence and political influence as well as predictions of an imminent KKK revival. He learned about extremist groups by subscribing to hate sheets published by organizations such as the American Gentile Army, the White Front and the Union of Christian Crusaders and continued to cozy-up to the KKK. By 1946 Kennedy and a team of spies had forged a direct pipeline into the Atlanta Klan, reporting on plots to kill black families who were moving into white neighbourhoods, hit lists targeting anti-Klan journalists and the role of Atlanta police in KKK violence. Terrifying stuff. One report noted that a policeman named John ‘Itchy Trigger Finger’ Nash received a commendation from the Grand Dragon for “the slaying of a Negro on Decatur Street last week… This makes the thirteenth Negro he has killed ‘in his line of duty.”
Kennedy’s work against the forces of racism is supported by the historical record. He certainly infiltrated the Klan and stood up against racism for decades. His credibility problem stemmed from his book The Klan Unmasked. Breaking with the tone of his previous writings, the Klan Unmasked read like a hard-boiled detective novel, with fanciful accounts and made up dialog woven around his Klan-busting capers. Under fire from critics for embellishing history, Kennedy had to admit that he novelized the book to sell more copies and raise more awareness of Klan violence. In the end, however, his actual accomplish were extensive and important — more than enough to secure his legacy as a tireless champion of civil rights.
A strong strategic planner and natural entrepreneur, Rick Bowers has launched and managed programs across all major media channels, including newspapers, magazines, online, music, books, television, radio and new media. Rick is currently the Director of Creative Initiatives for AARP, developing game-changing branding programs and integrated multi-media campaigns for the nearly 40-million-member organization.
Rick’s new book is entitled Spies of Mississippi: The True Story of the Spy Network that Tried to Destroy the Civil Rights Movement. Published by National Geographic, it tells the story of a pro-segregation state espionage agency that infiltrated civil rights groups with the express intent of stopping integration.