Stetson Kennedy, 94 – Florida folklorist, Klan-buster, and all-around thorn in the side of the rich and the racist

Stetson Kennedy (right) at his Beluthahatchee home in Fruit Cove, Florida, with the author following the launch of the Stetson Kennedy Foundation, 30 January 2006. Credit: Jill Bowen

On Saturday morning, a force as strong as this weekend’s hurricane left us for good. Stetson Kennedy, the folklorist and writer best known by my generation from Freakonomics and the Billy Bragg/Wilco adaptation of Woody Guthrie lyrics, died Saturday morning at Baptist Medical Center South in Jacksonville, Florida. He would have been 95 on October 5th.

Charlie Patton’s article in The St. Augustine Record and Jeff Klinkenberg’s reflections in the St. Petersburg Times are the best places to learn more.

A Jacksonville native who took a writing course from Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings at the University of Florida in the mid-1930s, Stetson left college during the Depression to capture Florida folklore for the Works Progress Administration – he *was* StoryCorps before there was a StoryCorps. Traveling with author, Zora Neale Hurston, they recorded stories and Negro spirituals from the oppressive turpentine camps in the north to the Bahamian and Cuban communities in the far south at Key West.

His last book was 75 years in the making – attention: Rebecca Skloot – a history of Key West entitled, Grits and Grunts. Begun during his 1937 marriage to his first wife, Edith Aguilar Ogden, and finished with his last wife, Sandra Parks, the book tells rich, colorful, and sometimes disturbing stories about life on “The Rock” that preceded Hemingway, the LGBT community, and the debauchery of Duval Street.

But it’s Stetson’s 1942 book, Palmetto Country, that is still regarded as the premier account of old Florida. Southern Exposure followed, a frank indictment of the racist, feudal South following World War II. He will perhaps be best remembered for his infiltration of the Ku Klux Klan together with others in the 1940s as detailed in The Klan Umasked. Although controversial because he took some of the stories as his own, volumes of artifacts confirm that Kennedy put his life on the line to reveal identities and secret codes of the Klan on radio and in print.

I knew that Stetson was in ill health recently and had moved to hospice care. Thanks to the recommendation a mutual friend, Jill Bowen, I called his hospital room on Friday night. Sandra put the phone to his ear and I was able to thank him – as you will read below – for being a personal inspiration and the primary philosophical influence in my serving on faculty at a historically black university. A steady stream of visitors and phone calls led James Schmidt to remark in The Gainesville Sun that, “He was sent off with a lot of love.”

Superb obituaries abound that I list way down at the end of this post. There you will learn more history about the man who gave voice to those who couldn’t do so themselves.

And if you want to hear his lovely voice and wit, listen to this 2005 interview Neal Conan did with Stetson for NPR’s Talk of the Nation.

But for this blog, I wanted to repost my account of our serendipitous meeting in 2006. I sometimes can’t believe that my life happens to me. I am so grateful that Stetson Kennedy has been a part of it.

This post appeared originally on 15 May 2006 at the Blogger site of Terra Sigillata.

I’ve been dabbling on this post for 3 months or so, partly because I was unsure of my goal or message. I’m still not sure but I know that I just want to tell a story. Learning of journalist Anton Zuiker’s StoryBlogging effort helped me commit to finishing it.

Let it suffice to say that I have been blessed to meet a number of prominent people as of late, mostly outside of my scientific discipline. I’m trying to make sense of their coming into my life as I recognize that I have truly settled back into Southern culture, tradition, and lifestyle. So much of my introduction to the South took place as a graduate student in North Florida, an area more like southern Georgia than the flashy coastal cities further south. I’m a Yankee by birth, but my relationships and experiences in Florida and North Carolina have now come full circle. I’ve not only married into a long-time Southern family, but my daughter is a native of the South. The South is now home.

Standing Up For Stetson
You may recall my fondness for the book, Freakonomics, and one of the key case subjects, the folklorist, author, civil rights activist, and general hellraiser, Stetson Kennedy. I already had an strong affinity for Mr Kennedy ever since I learned he went to the University of Florida at age 21 in 1937 – he then signed on to one of FDR’s New Deal projects, the Works Progress Administration (WPA), to catalog Southern folklore together with the venerated author, Zora Neale Hurston. Their travels are detailed in his first book, Palmetto Country, published in 1942.

In stark contrast, when a certain other 21-year-old was a UF student in the mid 1980s, his primary goal was to keep track of which nights each bar had the best beer, margarita, buffalo wing, and oyster specials.

Well, as detailed in my previous post, ol’ Stet moved on to infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan and revealing their secrets in radio and other media so as to subvert their influence and embarrass racist politicians and law officers. In detailing how Stetson defused the ‘information asymmetry’ used by the Klan to intimidate and evoke fear, Dubner and Levitt remarked in Freakonomics that, “Had the Internet been around when Kennedy infiltrated the Klan, he probably would’ve rushed home and blogged his brains out.”

But, recently, Stetson’s firsthand accounts of Klan infiltration in The Klan Unmasked have come under attack and he now acknowledges, as detailed in this objective reassessment, that some accounts were compiled from other undercover colleagues. Nothing to be ashamed of since others didn’t have the courage to have their revelations attributed to them and, all the while, Stetson was expatriated in Europe unable to have his book accepted for publication by any American house and separated from his wife and then-teenage son due to a $1,000-a-pound bounty placed on his head by the Klan.

Making Friends
Well, my vocal defense of Mr Kennedy caught the eye of his personal secretary and keeper of the flame, Jill Bowen, a self-described “God’s own brat” for her luck in falling into being Stetson’s caretaker and gofer. Miss Jill wrote to tell me that Mon Jan 30 was to be the inaugural fundraising event for the new Stetson Kennedy Foundation at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville. Dedicated to human rights, environmental protection, and folklore preservation, the SKF pretty much stands for everything I believe in. Jill elaborated further that she was the recipient of a second $500 ‘Inner Circle’ ticket and that her dear husband Bobby was not particularly fond of dressing up and comingling with large crowds. Hence, the fine young lady invited me to come down to Florida to accompany her to a preceding reception to meet such luminaries as Arlo Guthrie, Bob Edwards (formerly of NPR’s Morning Edition), Dr Anna Lomax (the daughter of the late folklorist, Alan Lomax, and amazing scholar in her own right), Dr Peggy Bulger (director of the American Folklife Center at the US Library of Congress) and, of course, Stetson Kennedy himself. Perhaps, Jill suggested, I could even stop by Stetson’s house beforehand and help her organize a few things before heading over to the event.

I’m certainly not one to be so spontaneous to blow off NIH grantwriting responsibilities and readers know that I was pretty scarce in these parts around the Feb 1 deadline. But, my wife and daughter both recognized the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and pushed me out the door to go press the flesh of history. Like a deer blinded by the headlights, I was off to north Florida to the Kennedy home and his estate and state park of Beluthahatchee, on the Florida peninsula south of Jacksonville, between the St. John’s River and the Atlantic Ocean.

Touching History
I arrived at the small but cozy Lindal cedar home and writer’s den of Stetson Kennedy. His two decks overlook a live oak hammock and 20 acre wetland that had been a lake before Hurricane Frances blew out the dam that Stetson had built with his father. The home is a national historic literary landmark in that Woody Guthrie spent several spans of time with Stet writing over 80 songs and completing his autobiography, The Seeds of Man. In fact, if you’re a Woody Guthrie fan and have either of the Billy Bragg/Wilco Mermaid Avenue collaborations, the image on the disc of Woody playing a guitar on a felled log was taken in 1953 by Stetson at Beluthahatchee. Here’s the image again on the cover of a collection of Mr Guthrie’s Beluthahatchee works that sits on the coffee table as you enter the house.

I enjoyed a lovely afternoon with Jill showing me all of Stetson’s memorabilia, feeding raw catfish to “Blue Boy,” the resident blue heron, and speaking with Dr Lomax who had awoken from a respite for a cold she was fighting. Bob Edwards had been by in the morning and Stetson was already gone with him for some interviews and pre-production work at the UNF auditorium.

I got a real tangible impression that Beluthahatchee was a crossroads for all thoughtful, progessive people who had ever been part of Stetson’s work and legacy. I’m not a writer, but the sense I got of Beluthahatchee was much like others have written about the late Hunter S Thompson’s Owl Farm kitchen in Woody Creek, Colorado (minus the acid and ammunition) – a community gathering place for whatever influential folk were coming through town, where ideas were exchanged and debated and plots hatched. Relaxing and pristine in its beauty of a Spanish moss-draped Florida hammock, it also seemed very much a nerve center. Sitting on the back porch overlooking the wetlands, I could understand how such a natural setting could inspire great idealistic thoughts and actions.

But the real world crept back in and Jill was frantic on the cell phone upon learning that Arlo Guthrie had not yet made it to the UNF auditorium – he was supposed to sing another of his Dad’s songs about Stetson called “Beluthahatchee Bill” at the reception (Stetson’s given name is William Stetson Kennedy). It was a hoot to watch Jill go through her address book (no newfangled Palm Pilot for this Florida gal) and sift through all of the entries for “Guthrie” until she was able to locate a relative who had a cell phone number for Abe, Arlo’s son and band member. I’m an amateur guitarist myself and had made an effort to learn the Billy Bragg/Wilco version of “Stetson Kennedy” from Mermaid Avenue vol. II just in case I was needed. It was amazing to actually see the lyrics in Woody’s handwriting that Messers. Bragg and Tweedy had used to write and record the song, composed originally by Woody to commemorate Stetson’s 1950 write-in campaign for the US Senate battle between Claude Pepper and George Smathers. In fact, Woody had written “Mathers” instead of “Smathers” in his indictment of the former Florida senator and the comfortable business relationship enjoyed with the executors of the DuPont estate.

Off To The Show
So, then, off to the reception with Jill and Anna Lomax in my rented Caddy, a fitting vehicle to transport Stetson’s assistant and the president of the Association for Cultural Equity to the University of North Florida. I had a good laugh driving Dr Lomax, knowing that she is the same “little 22-month-old Annie Lomax” referred to by Woody Guthrie in the liner notes of his album, Songs to Grow On for Mother and Child, that I routinely play in the car for my own daughter.

I am not famous, nor do I normally keep company with people who are. I’ve always wanted to meet famous people who I admire: Springsteen, Branford Marsalis, Elvis Costello, Bill Clinton – but more as dinner guests to discuss their views and how they got to where they are. I had one brush with fame, standing at a urinal next to Nobel laureate, Dr George Palade, at a 1986 Johns Hopkins memorial symposium for Dr Albert Lehninger – kind of awkward in that I didn’t want to shake his hand at the time, nor say something like, “Dr Palade, you are a great man.”

Well, the Stetson Kennedy event had me tongue-tied and awe-struck…times ten. I had no idea where to even start talking with Anna Lomax. When we got to the reception, Jill immediately introduced me to Arlo Guthrie who had just arrived. I got to shake Arlo Guthrie’s hand, all I could blurt out was, “Uhhh…I’m a big fan of you and your Daddy’s music,” rather than relate that my daughter loves to sing Woody’s “Ridin’ in My Car” with me, especially when we get to the part about the horn sound. Woody wrote these songs for his kids and I’m sure that Arlo would have been touched.

Instead, I took a few pictures and walked around, talking with Arlo’s wife, Jackie, and meeting some of Stetson’s family, even having my own picture taken with them for the society page of The Jacksonville Weekly (“Uh, yes, that’s ‘PharmBoy’ spelled with a ‘Ph’.”) Turns out that although Arlo was there, even he hadn’t ever learned his Dad’s song. But local folksinger, Alvah Allen, had – dang, there went my chance to play ‘Stetson Kennedy’ for the admiring crowd. That’s okay, I would’ve stumbled over my words and Alvah has a far more beautiful voice anyway.

The program was a spectacular tribute to the life and times of Stetson Kennedy. Set up like a talk show with a video screen overhead and an African musician (Ajamu Mutima) providing drum segues between pieces, it was as professional a function I had ever seen. Stetson was interviewed first by folklorist Dr Peggy Bulger and then by Bob Edwards,

now with his own show on XM Radio. Arlo provided some commentary about his Dad and his relationship with Stetson that he had only really learned about in the last decade or so. Dave Isay, founder and executive director of StoryCorps sent a heartfelt video piece honoring Stetson’s work. Isay’s message was particularly poignant since StoryCorps is designed after the WPA folklore projects Kennedy worked on in the 1930s. The whole program is downloadable in this pdf and I’m still trying to find out who will be marketing the DVD of the event.

I mentioned Bob Edwards and also got to meet the NPR legend afterwards (I’m almost 6’2″ and he towered over me). Despite my long-time subscription to Sirius, he fetched his producer to get me to switch to XM and sent me home with a promotional CD of his interviews with a special discount coupon if I subscribed. Edwards was a key player in the early days of NPR and seems rejuvenated by the chance to do the same in satellite radio.

My admiration for Arlo Guthrie notwithstanding, the musical highlight of the night was the Steve Blackwell/Dan Leach duet of “Beluthahatchee on my Mind,” a song Steve wrote but has yet to record. Steve and Dan are stalwarts in the Florida folk music community and students of Florida folk legend, Frank Thomas, who also performed. Steve and Dan offered to meet with me on a subsequent trip to Florida to learn the song, but my schedule didn’t permit. Such is the kindness and openness of folk musicians.

[Sadly, Steve Blackwell died later that year, 4 September 2006, from malignant melanoma at age 58 – I wrote about his passing in this post at the old ScienceBlogs home of Terra Sigillata – DJK]

Back to Beluthahatchee
After all of the festivities, we retired to Stet’s place. Jill had me pick an orange off one of Stetson’s trees to eat and gave me a snail shell from the swamp to share with my daughter. We went back inside to set for awhile with The Man himself and his dear friend, Anna Lomax. So, here I was, sitting with two of the most important people in American folklore – just settin’ for a spell like typical visitors to any home, eating quiche that Stet had warmed in the microwave and drinking Korbel to celebrate the evening. [This article tells a little more about what Stet has been doing in recent days and has a beautiful picture of him at the very table where we shared champagne and goodies.]

Again, billions of questions for them flooded my mind but I was still so stunned as to just listen to their conversation. A real journalist would have been far more prepared, but I was content to be mindful, present, and in the moment. Anna really challenged Stet on what the goal of the foundation was beyond preserving his estate and continuing environmental education programs. Dr Lomax is still deeply tied to the challenges of youth in New York City and around the world, so we all talked for awhile on what the foundation could do to improve the promise of young inner-city kids who need only for adults to believe in their desires and dreams. I have not since been in touch with Anna, but her vision for improving society seems so clear.

Nearing midnight, I took leave and wished Jill, Anna, and Stetson a good night. The Man was so gracious about me coming down to share in his honor. But all I could do is tell him that the rest of my life would be unlikely to equal what he has done to eradicate human injustice.

The next morning I woke to a magnificent sunrise over the St. John’s River. My wife, ever the Internet travel wizard, had found me a great hotel room with a free breakfast. I enjoyed the most spectacular Eggs Benedict over lump crabmeat that I had ever tasted. Mentioning this to the hotel manager at checkout, she sounded surprised because I was the second person that day to comment on that dish.

As I drove to the airport, I heard on the radio the Coretta Scott King had died. The night before, Jill had tried to find me the letter from Dr King to Stetson that she had recently archived. I consider myself quite fortunate to have met a major civil rights figure of our time while he was still here to receive the accolades of admirers across several generations.

Returning home, I made an effort to catch up with Stetson’s son, Loren, a major force behind-the-scenes in urban redevelopment in my community (again, another amazing coincidence). Over lunch I shared with Loren my story about meeting his Dad and how moved I was by the experience. Loren smiled knowingly and asked me what I was going to do with my new-found excitement about everything from combatting human injustice to playing folk-rock music. I didn’t have a good answer; in fact, my delay in posting this story is largely because I still don’t have a good answer.

I live a modestly comfortable life just miles away from some pretty serious poverty, drug dealing, and gang violence. I’ve always tried to use my good fortune as a laboratory director and educator to help kids and adults from underrepresented minorities get experience to make a better life for themselves. But should I be doing more? I’m extended pretty far between work and helping my wife raise our daughter, but people much more busy still find time for substantial community service. Is my community service the use of my lab and teaching skills to help those less fortunate to make a better life for themselves?

I don’t know – sounds pretty weak to me. When you meet people like Stetson Kennedy, people who have literally put their life on the line to stop the persecution and terrorizing of the black community, anything else you do pales in comparison.

But perhaps the lesson is that we don’t have to be a Stetson Kennedy – every step one makes to aspire to be a Stetson Kennedy is a step that, when combined collectively across a community, makes the world a better and more compassionate place.

I can’t wait to bring my family back to Beluthahatchee to meet Stet for his 90th birthday celebration later this year.

[This post is dedicated to my new friend, Jill Bowen, personal assistant to the author and civil rights legend, Stetson Kennedy. Everyone should be so fortunate to have a Jill Bowen in their life.]

For more reading, here are links to some Stetson Kennedy obituaries and reflections. The first three regional articles are the best place to start:

Jacksonville author, civil rights activist Stetson Kennedy dead at 94 – Charlie Patton, Florida Times-Union
(Largely reproduced in, Stetson Kennedy dies, at the St. Augustine Record)

Florida’s Homer, folklorist Stetson Kennedy, dies at age 94 – Jeff Klinkenberg, St. Petersburg Times

Florida author, known for infiltrating Klan, dies – Cindy Swirko, The Gainesville Sun

Not an obituary but an outstanding April 2011 interview by Bill Bryson:
Busting up the Klan and sticking it to the man – Vice Magazine
(Be mindful that surfing Vice outside of this article may be NSFW)

University of Florida history professor Paul Ortiz wrote the following for the online magazine of Institute for Southern Studies, Facing South. Their print magazine, Southern Exposure, derives its name from Stetson’s famous book.
VOICES: Stetson Kennedy and the pursuit of the truth – Paul Ortiz, Facing South

The national coverage:

Stetson Kennedy dies at 94; writer exposed the KKK – Los Angeles Times

Stetson Kennedy, author of ‘Klan Unmasked,’ dies at 94 – Emily Langer, The Washington Post

The Real Superman who Busted the Klan – Crashing Vor, Daily Kos

‘Klan Buster’ Stetson Kennedy Dies at 94 in Fla. – from the AP, The New York Times (although I expect this will be replaced with one from a Times writer)

Update as expected – 30 August:
Stetson Kennedy, Who Infiltrated and Exposed the Klan, Dies at 94 – William Grimes, The New York Times

And audio:

A 2005 NPR interview with Neal Conan for Talk of the Nation at the launch of StoryCorps.

The Life and Legacy of Stetson Kennedy at The Takeaway – 29 August 2011 (run time – 8:22)

An hour-and-a-half oral history from 1990 for the Southern Oral History Program at Documenting the American South, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The transcript is a great read for scholars of the early (1930s) struggle for civil rights in the South.

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