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      Busting Up the Klan and Sticking It to the Man

      By Bill Bryson

      March 31, 2011

      Portraits by Jason Henry
      Archival photos courtesy of Stetson Kennedy

      Stetson Kennedy is perhaps the most tenacious and neglected champion of human rights currently roaming this godforsaken planet. Throughout his career he has fulfilled the roles of author, activist, folklorist, journalist, “nature boy,” poet, and the first man to infiltrate and expose the Ku Klux Klan. His is a line of work that requires the kind of mettle forged in a bygone era—a time that fostered individuals with brains and balls so big it was physically impossible for them to stand idle as black people hung from trees and the poor ate dirt.

      Born in 1916 in Jacksonville, Florida, Stetson isn’t entirely unsung but he is certainly undersung. His accomplishments arrived so early and frequently in the struggle for equality that they were also some of the first to be buried by the scoundrels of history. The man’s endless crusade against injustice makes it seem like there has been a secret army of Stetsons roving the country for the past 94 years, surely and steadily rectifying the worst aspects of the human condition.

      As a member of what he dubbed the “vanguard generation” of the early and mid-20th century, Stetson played a leading role in the abolishment of the poll tax and white primaries, mechanisms that made it virtually impossible for blacks and impoverished whites to vote. In 1942, Stetson wrote Palmetto Country, a definitive socio-cultural history of Florida based on the discoveries he made while working on the WPA-funded Florida Writers’ Project. He ran for the US Senate in 1950 on a campaign based on “total equality” (Woody Guthrie even wrote three campaign songs for it), and a few years later released I Rode with the Ku Klux Klan (later retitled The Klan Unmasked). The exposé stemmed from a year of undercover work inside the Invisible Empire and wasn’t published in full in the States until 1990. What’s more, Stetson has been patiently and shrewdly holding a “ticking time bomb” close to his chest since his reportage—a mother lode of unpublished information about the KKK that includes top-secret ritual books, signs, countersigns, passwords, oaths, details on the organization’s chain of command, and even a “blueprint” of how to assemble a fiery cross (which sounds like the most redundant thing imaginable). It’s set to be published on the Stetson Kennedy Foundation’s website (stetsonkennedy.com) and viceland.com around the time this issue hits the streets.

      Stetson said that he considers releasing the aforementioned information about the KKK on par with his testimony as an expert witness in Geneva before the United Nations Commission on Forced Labor, which was such a big deal that anyone who wasn’t present has no chance of fathoming its implications. It was also this sojourn that led Stetson to an unplanned detour, traveling throughout Europe for the next eight years, where his work caught the eye of Jean-Paul Sartre, who published Stetson’s Jim Crow Guide to the USA in France in 1956 when no one else would touch it with a ten-foot pointy hat.

      Today Stetson spends a great deal of his time tending to the Stetson Kennedy Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to “championing human rights, social justice, environmentalism, and the preservation of folk culture.” The foundation is based out of his homestead Beluthahatchee, a very special place near the St. Johns River in Florida—a modern-day “Shangri-La, where all unpleasantness is forgiven and forgotten,” according to renowned anthropologist and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston. It was here that this interview took place. Unfortunately, the possibility of meeting and speaking with a person like Stetson is growing increasingly rare. Soak it in while you can.


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