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...
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.
Despite numerous attempts, the House Un-American Activities Committee refused to consider Stetson’s substantial and thorough firsthand evidence of terrorist activities perpetrated by the KKK. Fed up with the situation, he traveled to Washington with a briefcase full of documents to present his case to the committee in full Klan regalia. On his arrival, police officers were quickly called to the scene to detain and question him.
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.
Vice: Ever since Obama became president, some people have been claiming we now live in, or are headed into, a “postracial” era. What do you think about that?
Stetson Kennedy: The struggle for human rights is a continuum with no beginning and no end. I don’t think there’s any such thing as “postracism.” Racism is a phenomenon that exists not just in America but also throughout human society and history, almost without exception. But the progress of race relations in America has been very appreciable. It has turned out better in many ways than even I dared to hope for. In France, in the middle of the 20th century, I saw mixed couples with their baby carriages in the parks and no one paid attention. I was the only one who noticed, so to speak. At that time, I thought that it would be 1,000 years before Americans didn’t care about this type of thing. But it hasn’t taken that long, and it proves that society can make profound changes and sometimes quite rapidly. We not only stopped saying nigger, we stopped using spittoons and honking [car] horns nonstop. You used to not be able to sleep in Manhattan because people were all blowing their horns simultaneously. Change can happen.
Like the Obama type of change?
The Obama election was, of course, won by a narrow margin, so indeed the country is divided along those lines. Prior to the election, a friend of mine was hanging out in the Carolinas with the good ol’ boys. He came back with a message: The Klan was working for and supporting Obama in the election campaign because they wanted him to win so that they could assassinate him and start a race war. From my personal experience since the 40s, the Klan has always been intent on provoking a race war, and this was a motive behind child murders and a series of church burnings that occurred across the South during that time. It’s true that the country is divided on many issues besides Obama’s politics and having an African American in the White House. Some are political or social or religious, but I’m most concerned by the fact that the Klan mentality has, in my opinion, been transformed, or perhaps I should say transplanted.
How do you mean?
There’s been a change of uniform. The history of the Klan has consisted of changing uniforms. They started with Confederate gray, and then they put on their bedsheets. Then, once white rule and segregation had been reestablished, the uniform changed to police blue and deputy khaki. For a while, it was so-called law-enforcement officials who were ensuring white rule, but the robes eventually came back. I personally witnessed discussions and debates after WWII as to whether the returning veterans should go for the bedsheets or not, whether it was too passé. Then you began seeing these men in army fatigues showing up in Klan meetings and parades. The seed for militia activity, which has taken root in so many states across the country, goes all the way back to that period after WWII. They took their mentality and agenda with them.
It says volumes about your personality that you were able to interact with these people who were doing such awful things for so long and not lose your cool even once. How was it possible to act friendly toward them for so long while you were undercover?
I’ll put it this way. One time, my phone rang and a voice said, “This is the Klan.” I hung up. The second time it happened I said I was the “counter-Klan” and let the guy talk. It turned out to be the chief Klan officer for the congressional district over in Stark, Florida. Instead of threatening me, he wanted to know if I could please help him flesh out his family tree. They called this guy the Great Titan. Both his father and his grandfather were indicted for the murder of Joseph Shoemaker in Tampa back in the 1930s. Shoemaker was arrested, and the police took him out of jail and handed him over to the robed Klansmen on the courthouse steps. They castrated him, dunked him in a bucket of hot tar, and beat him to death. This guy’s father and grandfather had been indicted for being a part of it. He wanted me to help complete his lineage. I sent him some clippings.
At what point did patriotism and racism become so intertwined? Is it so deeply ingrained in American culture that it can’t be excised?
House Un-American Activities Committee member John E. Rankin of Mississippi said that the Klan was as patriotic an institution as apple pie. I did, many times, try to get them to receive evidence, and they always declined or didn’t answer at all. Once I took a bus over to Washington. After I arrived I got in a cab and put my robe on. The driver was looking at me in the rearview mirror and almost wrecked the car. We got to the House Office Building, and I went in wearing my robe and carrying my briefcase full of so much evidence that it wouldn’t close—it was sticking out the top. I knocked on the door, and the women clerks inside started screaming and ran out. I just sat down and thumbed through my papers. Some man cracked the door to the next room, peeked through, and then slammed it in a hurry. A squad of six Capitol policemen came up and took me into custody. I was flattered that they sent six. They took me down to the basement, and after I explained myself the lieutenant ordered me to take off the robe and never come back again while wearing it. That’s as far as I got with them, but I did succeed in getting the attention of the public.
Does the Klan still have relevance?
The militias are, in my opinion, the modern manifestation of the Klan’s tradition of violence and white rule. The militia agenda, in some respects and in many areas, is far more drastic than the Klan could have ever conceived. The Klan, by and large, was considered patriotic and supportive of the US government, whereas the militias want to overthrow the American federal government by force and rewrite the Constitution so that only Caucasian whites would have citizenship. Many of these militias talk about such things as a global holocaust, the expatriation of blacks to Africa, and the reinstitution of Jim Crow segregation for those who weren’t sent overseas. It would be, in effect, a 100 percent fascist, Nazi concept of America. In my view, the Tea Party people are the counterparts of the first Nazi Germany storm troopers when Hitler had only a handful of them. They’ve got the same sort of psychology and personality and potential for evil.
Stetson showing off one of his favorite t-shirts. One of Stetson’s most unattractive articles of clothing.
Do you have any ideas about how we can check these groups? Is there any way to stop them without resorting to violence?
Well, it goes without saying that the tendency of so-called law enforcement was—and this is municipal, state, county, and federal—to smile upon militias as good ol’ boys letting off steam who don’t mean anyone any harm. But one could imagine what would happen if the NAACP or Anti-Defamation League or B’nai B’rith or La Raza started wearing fatigues, carrying military weapons, and practicing warfare with live ammo. They’d all be behind barbed wire by sundown.
Of course, gun advocates point to the Constitution’s guarantee of the citizenry’s right to bear arms. But then they stop short of the phrase “a well-regulated militia.” I’m quite sure that what the writers of the Constitution had in mind were well-regulated state militias, not purely private armies.
The prohibition against private armies is in there, it’s just not being enforced. I think we’re putting our nation in grave peril by allowing it to continue. I was saying things like this on a local radio station a while back, and the head of the area militia called in. I asked him, “Well, do you consider yourself well armed?” And he said, “Well, I certainly do.” Then he recited every weapon in his arsenal and was very proud of it. I asked, “Who are you planning to kill?” And he said, “Anyone who tries to take away my guns.” If the incumbent national administration happened to impose the constitutional statutory laws against private armies, I don’t know if we’d have a virtual civil war on our hands or not. These people are fanatics. My concern is not just racism—these people are large-scale counterrevolutionists, and by that I’m referring to the American Revolution. They are terrorists simply biding their time.
Have you ever requested your federal file through a Freedom of Information Act search or elsewhere?
Yes. It cost me $40.45, at five cents per page, and it was 809 pages. It became apparent early on in my work that the FBI looked upon anyone opposing racial segregation as being subversive. They would write these reports about me saying, “He’s undoubtedly going to continue to write about segregation and pro-labor articles.” Can you imagine? They were correct that I was trying to subvert white rule, so they weren’t all that off base. That’s the way it was.
In the media and elsewhere, we are now referred to as consumers instead of citizens. You’ve watched this happen. How has this affected the American dream?
During the Great Depression, the American dream, the ultimate goal of society, was to have a “chicken in every pot.” Now it’s owning two automobiles and a runabout boat and all sorts of other things. During the middle of the 20th century, the US Chamber of Commerce’s slogan was “Build the Middle Class.” That is something worthwhile. Now, a half century later, we’re face to face with the phenomenon of the middle class being precipitously plunged into something less than middle class. And the flight of industry and capital to other low-cost labor markets in the world has left America to wither on the vine, so much that instead of worrying about “rust belts” we would do well to start worrying about a “rust continent.” To my mind, that is nothing less than high treason. Capitalists decided they were going to escape from two centuries of bloody, painful struggle to improve labor conditions. They packed it up to go to places where they didn’t have to worry about child-labor laws, workman’s comp, unemployment insurance, retirement insurance, safety regulations, or environmental protection. This means the Industrial Revolution is starting over again with no holds barred. What that means for the future remains to be seen. I think it has the potential of making us a third-world debtor, flash-in-the-pan, has-been nation.
You don’t think America can take another Great Depression? We were able to rebound from it last time.
The absconding of capital and industry represents something far more portentous than any transient depression. All that capital was created by American labor out of American resources. The Great Train Robbery was a pickpocket spree by comparison. So many millions of Americans today have had a taste of affluence and are living in comfort. Before the Great Depression, millions and millions of people were already living very close to poverty, so they knew what it was like and how to cope with it and deal with the transition. Abject poverty was not as traumatic as it’s going to be for this affluent middle class of ours when they find themselves on the street. They’re totally unskilled in coping with poverty. I won’t be surprised if suicides increase dramatically as the meltdown continues to trickle down. It has just now begun to be felt, I’m afraid. The doomsayers don’t know the half of it in terms of both the environment and economy.
One of your great friends and advocates was Woody Guthrie, and he was a tremendous influence on folk music and especially Bob Dylan. What was it like to meet Woody for the first time?
Woody first came to the attention of the public because of Alan Lomax. Alan had come to Florida and employed me as a consultant while he was doing some CBS broadcasts during the war. He apparently gave Woody a copy of my first book, Palmetto Country, which was published in 1942. Some time later Woody sent the jacket of the book back with a note of praise—how most books made him feel like dirt and this one made him stand up like a longleaf pine, and if I should continue on following my own free will then there would be no end to the earthly service I could perform. He also said not to be surprised if he came staggering up to my house someday with his guitar to have some good, long talks.
It didn’t exactly happen like that. One day Woody called me from a Greyhound Bus station and asked me to come pick him up and bring him out here to Beluthahatchee. I was living in an abandoned Florida Motor Line bus from the 30s at the time, but I had a full-length porch and a lean-to kitchen. Woody elected to sleep in a jungle hammock outdoors, under the oak trees. He spent considerable time here, off and on. He was frequently accompanied by Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, who did the driving. Some years after Woody’s first visit he came back with a 21-year-old girl named Anneke. Woody was 41, and she had left her actor husband to come with Woody to Beluthahatchee. After they left, one of my black neighbors said, “What kind of people were they?” I said, “What do you mean?” And she said, “Well, me and my husband came out here one Sunday morning and asked permission to fish, and him and her come out of the bus buck naked. What kind of people you call that?” I said, “It’s just Woody.”
You ran for the US Senate in 1950, and Woody wrote a campaign song that caused you to garner a lot of negative attention from people who did not want your crusade against racism to gain steam. In fact, some historians and writers have claimed that you moved to Europe because of threats from the Klan and others.
There were any number of reports that said I left the country because of the Klan and the ensuing witch hunt. None of them were true.
So what was your motivation for leaving?
I was out here [in Beluthahatchee] digging a 20-acre lake, came inside covered in mud, and saw a little notice in the paper that read “United Nations Commission on Forced Labor Adjourning in New York.” No witness had been forthcoming about any type of forced labor anywhere in the Western Hemisphere. So I rushed to the telegraph office and offered to fly up a planeload of forced laborers from the turpentine, cabbage, and potato plantations in my neighborhood. They replied saying they’d already adjourned, but if I could get to Geneva, Switzerland, in ten days, at my own expense, they would hear me as an expert witness. I was stone broke, but I rushed to a nearby plantation with my wire recorder. Soon I had enough of the nitty-gritty to present to the UN. I told them again that I could bring over a planeful of slave laborers, but they said no, just me. I raced around to immediate neighbors here, who were black, and raised enough for a one-way ticket with $8 to spare. That’s why I went to Europe. I stayed for about eight years.
And while you were there you wrote one of the defining books of your career: The Jim Crow Guide to the USA, which no one in the States would publish.
Jean-Paul Sartre published it in France, and soon after, this dapper young CIA agent came to me waving a copy of the first French edition and said, “This thing hurts like hell! If you will repudiate it and say it was a put-up job, we will make you financially independent for life!” I said, “If you can point to anything that’s incorrect, I’d be happy to correct it for free.” He left in a huff without pointing to anything, so I called a press conference and exposed the CIA’s effort to bribe me. After that I went on down into Rome and they happened to be having an election. The CIA has a habit of putting millions into European elections, supporting certain parties and trying to start new ones. In Rome there was some party that had CIA backing, and I happened to see the workers putting up big posters with glue on them. I came along with a stick after they turned the corner, and I took the posters off while they were still wet. One time I didn’t wait long enough until they were around the corner, and they saw me and took me to the police station and so on.
I also wanted to touch on your work as a folklorist. Most people don’t really understand what folklore is, never mind its importance to culture. How do you define it?
Zora Neale Hurston came up with probably the best, most everlasting definition: “Folklore is the boiled-down juice, or potlikker, of human living.” If you don’t know what potlikker is, it’s the liquid left over after cooking turnip, collard, or mustard greens with smoked ham hocks.
Tolstoy said that when he wanted to talk about anything serious he went out to the illiterate peasants because their minds hadn’t been obfuscated by any formal education. It was a category of folklore we called “folksay,” which are basically one-liners. I made a special effort to compile these wherever I went, such as an old black man who said, “When you in Rome, Georgia, you got to act like it.” I thought that summed up the Jim Crow system like nothing else. Or the black domestic servant saying, “I feed white folks with a loooong spoon.” Those are examples of what I’m talking about.
You once asked, “Can only centuries of fraternity erase centuries of enmity?” But how do we get to a point of unfettered solidarity? Do you have any ideas for practical solutions that could speed things along?
People have asked me throughout my life what the solution is to end violence between groups and cultures and peoples, some of which have been going on for millennia. I don’t believe it’s practical to say, “Kiss and make up,” because it won’t work. I don’t know what will put a stop to it. Maybe we need to put together some sort of international force to deal with it. That said, I don’t think that law can put an immediate stop to it, and I don’t believe enmity will evaporate overnight, because they can’t eradicate centuries of bloodshed by anything other than living as good neighbors and fellow citizens. I’ve been looking for an answer all my life, and that’s the closest I’ve come to it. Enact laws, enforce the laws, and then live together, like it or not, until you begin to like it. Martin Luther King and others spent years speaking about tolerance, and I think that’s the incorrect word because it implies there’s something wrong with you that I have to tolerate. We need a better way of saying it, something like mutual esteem. Tolerance has all the wrong connotations.
Some would say that it’s the powers that be that won’t allow society to move forward and embrace true equality.
We think of government as being all-powerful, but in reality there is something else out there called the private sector, which is all too dominant. In my opinion, it’s not too much to say that it has subverted democracy in the halls of government to the extent that I don’t know where the trend of privatization will end. It’s almost already reached the point that it seems like a good idea to privatize all government and move from Pennsylvania Avenue to Wall Street, where the real power exists. Woody Guthrie used to ask the question, “What went wrong here, anyway?” I think the one-word answer would be “greed.” I think it’s become obvious that humankind cannot afford to leave greed unchecked, or we are headed for a series of meltdowns.