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Florynce Kennedy Is an Intersectional Feminist Hero Worth Honoring During Black History Month

As an advocate for women and people of color, Florynce Kennedy fought for the rights of marginalized communities and empowered underprivileged Americans.

by Aaron Barksdale
Feb 20 2018, 4:00pm

Illustration by Loveis Wise

For one month a year, the nation sets aside much-needed time to highlight the achievements made by black Americans and the challenges they continue to endure. Despite the importance of Black History Month, the conversation seems to be limited to a few important names — such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Harriet Tubman, and W.E.B. DuBois to name a few — but lesser-known black Americans from all walks of life and experiences have had equally important roles in spreading tolerance and teaching acceptance. To celebrate Black History Month, VICE Impact is focusing on the accomplishments of unsung heroes who were key figures in the fight for racial equality.

As an activist known for her signature cowboy hat, pink sunglasses and in-your-face attitude, Florynce — aka “Flo” — Kennedy made a name for herself with her loud sense of fashion and even louder politics.

In the ‘70s, Kennedy was a civil rights advocate and one of the first black women to graduate from Columbia Law School, which she threatened with a discrimination lawsuit after initially getting rejected for being a woman. She was a proud feminist who not only fought for women’s rights — such as a abortion — but defended racial minorities as well. Her legacy includes representing members of the militant Black Panthers, co-founding the National Women’s Political Caucus and organizing a “pee-in” protest at Harvard for lack of restrooms for women on campus.

Born in 1916 in Kansas City, Missouri, Kennedy was no stranger to the dangers of racism in America. According to the New York Times, Kennedy’s father once defended their family with a shotgun against members of the Ku Klux Klan who were upset about a black family living in a predominantly white neighborhood. After she finished high school, she helped mobilize a boycott when a local Coca-Cola bottler wouldn’t hire drivers because they were black.

Kennedy moved from Missouri to New York City in 1942 and enrolled in pre-law courses at Columbia University. In 1948, after fighting for her right to be admitted, she was able to attend the law school where she was one of eight women and the only black person in her class. After graduating in 1951, she opened her own law office three years later and went to win cases for the estates of the famed Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker.

Kennedy was unsatisfied with just litigating business matters, and threw her bedazzled cowgirl hat into the ring of political activism. In 1966, she created the Media Workshop to counter racism in journalism and advertising through grassroots organizing, which meant picketing in the streets for change. That same year she represented radical civil rights leader and the fifth chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), H. Rap Brown — now known as Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin. Also, in 1969 she successfully defended 21 members of the Black Panthers on trial for conspiracy to commit bombings.

Kennedy was a tireless advocate for women’s reproductive rights and in 1968 took legal action against the Roman Catholic Church for allegedly interfering with abortion. The following year, she and a group of lawyers challenged New York State’s abortion law, which, according to the New York Times, is responsible for liberalizing abortions in 1970. Also, in 1971, she founded the National Feminist Party, which nominated representative Shirley Chisholm (D-NY) — the first black woman in history elected to Congress — for president.

In 2000, Kennedy died at age 84. Her friend and colleague, feminist scholar Gloria Steinem once called her an “outrageous, imaginative, humorous and witty spokeswoman for social justice.”

Kennedy's efforts toward protecting reproductive rights were revolutionary in the ‘60s and ‘70s, but the fight for women to have agency over their bodies still isn’t over. President Trump and his administration have been openly hostile toward reproductive rights, but Planned Parenthood is fighting for birth control access for all women. Take action today to make sure women’s reproductive health isn’t put in danger.