A true American hero passed away yesterday.
From his teenage years, Stetson Kennedy was fascinated by the local folk stories of the South. In 1937, he left his studies at the University of Florida to join the WPA's Writers Project. By the time he was 21, he was head of folklore, oral history and ethnic studies for Florida. His travels and collecting with the African-American novelist Zora Neale Hurston, led to his first book, "Palmetto Country," praised by the likes of Alan Lomax and Woody Guthrie.
He would go on to write seven more books and co-author a ninth. One of them changed America, though few may know it today.
While today we think of the Ku Klux Klan as a radical fringe group, in the 1930s through the 50s, it reflected far too great a slice of white public opinion, especially in the South and Midwest. It was, disturbing as the notion sounds, something close to mainstream. Quoting the website of Ferris State University's Jim Crow Museum:
But in the 1940s and 1950s, there were many Americans who openly supported the Klan’s objectives. For example, Congressman John Rankin of Mississippi, Chair of the House Un-American Activities Committee, opposed investigating the Klan because, “After all, the KKK is an old American institution." His colleague, Congressman John S. Wood of Georgia, added, "The threats and intimidation of the Klan are an old American custom, like illegal whiskey-making."
Part of the Klan's accepted status, as well as its appeal to members, came from its secrecy. Meetings, rituals, goals, allies, targets--all were closely held.
Until Kennedy came along. From Wikipedia:
In 1942 Kennedy accepted a position as Southeastern Editorial Director of the CIO's Political Action Committee in Atlanta, Georgia, in which capacity he wrote a series of monographs dealing with the poll tax, white primaries, and other restrictions on voting that delimited democracy throughout the South. Kept from military service by a bad back, Kennedy resolved to perform his patriotic duties in Georgia by infiltrating both the Klan and the Columbians, an Atlanta-based neo-Nazi organization.
Posing as a racist encyclopedia salesman, Kennedy joined a Klan chapter in Atlanta and learned the organization's ways. He published the book "Southern Exposure" in 1946 and, in 1954, the expose "I Rode with the Ku Klux Klan," later retitled "The Klan Unmasked." He revealed countless details about the Klan, from its secret rituals, titles and handshakes, right down to the names of prominent members of local chapters.
Though his articles and books were a sensation in themselves, Kennedy felt his revelations needed to be heard by an even wider audience, and he enlisted the help of national journalists to help disseminate the information. For a period in the 40s, muckraker Drew Pearson would read minutes of local Klan meetings obtained by Kennedy on his national radio show.
But perhaps the most interesting collaboration Kennedy made to spread the word on the Klan was with Robert Maxwell, producer of the Superman radio show. With World War II ended and the Man of Steel having defeated the Axis with his super powers, Maxwell liked the idea of Supe going after hate groups like the Klan. Again from the Ferris site:
The writers created “Clan of the Fiery Cross,” a series where Superman battled the Klan. Kennedy and the show’s producers recognized that the Klan thrived on secrecy. By revealing everything from local Klan gossip to the Klan’s organizational structure and code words, the program stripped the Klan of its air of mystery and hurt Klan recruiting and membership.
You can hear and download the original episode of "Clan of the Fiery Cross" here
Klan leaders were furious at having their secrets broadcast weekly on a children's radio program. They tried to organize a boycott of Pep cereal, the show's sponsor, but Maxwell and Kennedy kept on broadcasting, extending the series to 16 episodes.
Kennedy continued to write and rail against the Klan and other hate groups, publishing books like "Jim Crow Guide to the USA" and "After Appomattox: How the South Won the War."
There were accusations that he had exaggerated some details about the Klan in his books, fabricating rituals and words. In retrospect, these claims, many made by Klan members and sympathizers, seem trivial, like arguments over the color of the car that ran over a pedestrian.
Kennedy's legacy, despite such objections, is secure. Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt, in their 2005 book "Freakonomics," credit Kennedy as "the greatest single contributor to the weakening of the Ku Klux Klan".
Kennedy passed away yesterday morning. A notice posted on his website reads:
Died today at 9:36 AM EDT. 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"