Monday, February 20, 2017

KKK BUSTER: New Book on Civil Rights Hero Stetson Kennedy, My Late Friend and Mentor

Excited to learn about new book by Dr. Peggy Bulger on my late friend and mentor, Wm. Stetson Kennedy.  

The New York Times obituary is here.

Here's the column I wrote about Stetson after his death in 2011, at age 95:

Guest column: Stetson Kennedy was a true hero, ahead of his time
Posted: September 4, 2011 - 12:49am
September 4, 2011 - 12:49am
Copyright 2011
St. Augustine Record

My friend and mentor, Stetson Kennedy, died last Saturday at the age of 94. Stetson was a true American hero, of whom Studs Terkel wrote:

"Stetson Kennedy, in all the delightful years I've known him, has always questioned authority -- whether it be the alderman or the president. He has always asked the question 'Why?' Whether it be waging a war based on an outrageous lie or any behavior he considers undemocratic, he has always asked the provocative question. In short, he could well be described as a ''troublemaker'' in the best sense of the word. With half a dozen Stetson Kennedys, we can transform our society into one of truth, grace and beauty."

Nearly six years ago, I was introduced to Stetson Kennedy by our mutual friend, David Thundershield Queen (now-deceased Native American advocate) at Stetson's birthday party at Beluthahatchee. Stetson impressed me with his courage, intellect and dogged determination. I enjoyed the pleasure of his company, whether talking about life or poring over FBI documents. Stetson was a kindred spirit. I was humbled and flattered when Stetson called me "Stetson Kennedy, Jr." upon our second meeting.

I had lunch with Stetson Kennedy earlier this year, at Athena (local Greek Restaurant, across from the former Slave Market, where two civil rights monuments now stand). I asked Stetson if he knew where our City Manager was that day. "I don't usually follow him," Stetson said. I told him that City Manager John Regan was visiting three Civil Rights Museums, then on his way to meeting our former UN Ambassador Andrew Young, to discuss a National Civil Rights Museum here. Upon hearing the news, Stetson Kennedy was so proud -- he almost cried. Our City of St. Augustine has come so far in such a short time, and Stetson Kennedy got to see it all. Stetson exemplified Mahatma Gandhi's precept: "Be the change you want to see in the world."

Stetson Kennedy was proud that our Nation's Oldest European-founded city will soon have a National Civil Rights Museum, thanks to the courage of the people who demonstrated here in 1964, including Ambassador Andrew Young.

Stetson Kennedy lived to see an African-American elected president of the United States and another African-American elected to be mayor of Jacksonville, Florida. That's where it all began for Stetson, as a young boy who heard about his African-American nanny raped by vicious Klansmen, retaliation for asserting her rights on a Jacksonville bus. Kennedy helped end the Klan as he knew it: the motto of his life might be "Eracism."

Stetson Kennedy's ideas live on, in the spirit of the character Tom Joad from John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath: "I'll be all around in the dark -- I'll be everywhere. Wherever you can look -- wherever there's a fight, so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Wherever there's a cop beatin' up a guy, I'll be there. I'll be in the way guys yell when they're mad. I'll be in the way kids laugh when they're hungry and they know supper's ready, and when the people are eatin' the stuff they raise and livin' in the houses they build -- I'll be there, too."

Stetson Kennedy didn't live nearly long enough to see all of his goals achieved, but he pointed the way for future generations. He was a true hero, ahead of his time. As Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Bernard Malamud wrote in The Natural, "Without heroes, we are all plain people, and don't know how far we can go."


Ed Slavin received a B.S. in Foreign Service, Georgetown University; a J.D. from Memphis State University, now University of Memphis, and is a leader on environmental justice issues.


Here's what I blogged on the occasion of his 95th birthday later that year:

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Stetson Kennedy's 95th birthday

Stetson Kennedy would have been 95 today, October 5, 2011. We miss him.

The St. Augustine Record carried excellent editorials and articles about his heroism, including good coverage of Sunday’s memorial service, and graciously printed my column (above and below).

However, I was annoyed to see that not one local politician – not one – attended the memorial service. Ordinarily, St. Johns County politicians attend all sorts of church, business and philanthropic events. As Brian Wallace once said of a former Mayor, “he’s everywhere – even at the opening of an envelope!”

Not one elected public official was to be seen at Stetson’s memorial service.

I reckon he was too radical for some – his values of human rights and environmental protection might scare them. The KKK is still alive, as Stetson Kennedy told a gathering at the Southeast Branch Public Library last year – he was asked what happened to the men and boys who were throwing rocks at black people at the Slave Market in 1964 during civil rights protests. “Some of them are still around, working for the City and the County,” he said.

We’re getting a National Civil Rights Museum here in St. Augustine, thanks to the persistence of former UN Ambassador (and Atlanta Mayor) Andrew Young and St. Augustine Mayor Joe Boles. When I told Stetson Kennedy about this plan earlier this year, he almost cried. His life has helped transform our country, and that's a good thing.

Stetson Kennedy encourages us to do our best.

In fact, I just looked inside his book, Grits and Grunts -- Folklore Key West (republished with WPA photos last year). Stetson Kennedy wrote, "Here's to Ed Slavin -- a full time and over-time freedom fighter! Salud!"

We shall overcome. And we have!

Dr. Peggy Bulger, Ph.D. with the late Wm. Stetson Kennedy

Posted February 19, 2017 03:02 am | Updated February 19, 2017 08:00 am
By Charlie Patton
New book looks at the life and work of activist, journalist and folklorist Stetson Kennedy
Florida Times-Union

Peggy Bulger and Stetson Kennedy. (Provided by the Library of Congress)

Not long after she had arrived at the Stephen Foster Center in White Springs in 1976 to serve as Florida’s first State Folk Arts Coordinator, Peggy Bulger encountered the work of the Florida Writers’ Project’s Folklore Unit.

She was impressed by the research gathered and was especially impressed with Stetson Kennedy, who led the folklore unit as they worked on what became “Florida: A Guide to the Southernmost State,” published by Oxford University Press in 1939.

She remembers telling Alton Morris, a University of Florida professor: “I am so amazed by the work of Stetson Kennedy. It’s really too bad he’s dead.”

Morris informed her that not only was Kennedy alive and well, he was living nearby in Jacksonville.

“As we say in the South, I was gobsmacked,” Bulger wrote in the introduction to her 1992 doctoral thesis, “Stetson Kennedy: Applied Folklore and Cultural Advocacy.”

That thesis, with a new introduction by Ben Brotemarkle, executive director of the Florida Historical Society, a new epilogue by Bulger, and an supplementary essay by Paul Ortiz, recently has been published as a trade paperback by the Florida Historical Society. The Florida Historical Society had previously postumously published “The Florida Slave,” Kennedy’s eighth book, in 2011, the year he died.

After learning Kennedy, who had been only 22 when he was named head of the Folklife, Life History and Social/Ethnic Units of the Florida Writers Project, was alive, Bulger sought him out. The relationship enriched her life from the moment she met Kennedy, then 62, in 1978, she said.

“Stetson was an amazing mentor,” said Bulger, who served as director of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress from 1999 to 2011 before retiring to Fernandina Beach.

In 1985, she took a one-year leave of absence from her work as Florida’s State Folk Arts Coordinator to complete course work for a doctorate in Folklore and Folklife at the University of Pennsylvania. When she mentioned to Kenneth Goldstein, her professor at Penn, that she was friends with Stetson Kennedy, he too was “gobsmacked.”

Like Bulger, Goldstein had assumed Kennedy was dead. He immediately suggested Kennedy as the subject for Bulger’s thesis. She began extensive interviews in 1988 and submitted her thesis in 1992. It covered Kennedy’s life from his birth to his return to Florida from Europe in the early 1960s

For Kennedy folklore played important roles in both oppressing people and fighting the oppressors.

“Any oppressed people will have a protest lore, and folk culture represents whatever struggles are going on within the society — whether the lines are racial, economic or religious,” Kennedy once said. “… My self-appointed job has been to make as much use of protest lore as I possibly could, in all of the struggles that were taking place.”

Kennedy used much of the material that had been gathered for the Florida guide to write his first book, “Palmetto Country,” published in 1942 as part of the American Folkways Series.

“The impulse to both embrace the South and expose its faults would run through ‘Palmetto Country’ as Kennedy celebrated traditional Southern folklife and reported on political, economic and social realities that he hoped to change,” Bulger wrote in her thesis.

Following the publication of “Palmetto Country,” Kennedy moved to Atlanta to take more action to battle against “homegrown racial terrorists.” He would live a double life for the next six years. As Stetson Kennedy, he worked as a labor organizer and crusading journalist.

As John Perkins, he became a member of more than 20 hate groups including the Ku Klux Klan and the Columbians. Perkins would feed material he and another Klan infiltrator had gathered to the state authorities, to the influential syndicated columnist Drew Pearson and even to the producers of the “Superman” radio show, who created a story arc in which Superman battled the Grand Dragon.

In both feeding material to the “Superman” producers and later writing his book “I Rode with the Ku Klux Klan” Kennedy was “using folklore to expose the Klan and make them look ridiculous,” Bulger said in an interview.

Eventually Kennedy would reveal the fact that he was Perkins when he testified in a trial against the Columbians in 1948.

“Kennedy’s Atlanta days were both dangerous and courageous — some would say foolhardy,” Bulger wrote in her thesis.

Some of the material Kennedy gathered during his Atlanta years went into “Southern Exposure,” a straight-forward journalistic look at Southern hate groups published in 1946. He then incorporated both the material he had gathered and the material the other infiltrator had gathered into “I Rode with the Ku Klux Klan,” first published in England in 1954.

In a footnote to her thesis, Bulger wrote: “Kennedy combined his personal experiences undercover with narratives provided by John Brown in writing ‘I Rode with the Ku Klux Klan’ in 1954.”

She described the book itself as “a vivid reconstruction of Kennedy’s days undercover in the Atlanta Klavery and it reads like a good detective novel — but the story is true.”

But the novelistic approach eventually came back to briefly haunt Kennedy. When the book was reissued in 1990 by the University of Florida Presses, as “The Klan Unmasked,” he included a brief note opposite the table of contents thanking various people including “my fellow anti-Klan agent ‘Bob,’ who has risked his life many times …”

Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt celebrated Kennedy in their 2005 bestseller “Freakonomics.” But historian Ben Green, who had quarreled with Kennedy, convinced them that Kennedy had greatly exaggerated what he did. In a column they wrote for the Jan. 6, 2006, New York Times, which carried the headline “Hoodwinked,” they attacked Kennedy’s credibility.

The Times-Union examined his papers at the the Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture, a branch of New York City’s public library system in Harlem, and concluded that while Kennedy had used material gathered by others in his book, he had also clearly infiltrated both Klan meetings and the meetings of the Columbians, against whom he testified in court.

In his introduction to Bulger’s book, Brotemarkle writes: “Much has been made of Stetson’s creative choice to integrate information obtained by another KKK infiltrator and additional interviews with Klan members with his own experiences, presenting them with one narrative voice. The accuracy of the information in his book cannot be effectively challenged, just the style in which the facts are presented.”

In an epilogue she wrote last year for the book, Bulger said, “I was shocked and saddened that a 93 year old activist and lifelong civil rights advocate could be treated so poorly and pilloried in the press without proper documentation.”

She concludes that epilogue by writing: “Studs Terkel, the renowned historian and author, was friends with Stetson Kennedy for decades. He perhaps put it best when reflecting on the impact of Stetson’s life for all of us in the 21st century — “With half-a-dozen Stetson Kennedys, we can transform our society into one of truth, grace and beauty.”

“Stetson Kennedy: Applied Folklore and Cultural Advocacy” can be purchased at Anastasia Books, 76A San Marco Ave., St. Augustine; or by going to

Charlie Patton: (904) 359-4413
Book signing by Peggy A. Bulger of “Stetson Kennedy: Applied Folklore and Ccultural Advocacy” 2 p.m. Saturday at Mandarin Historical Society and Museum, 11964 Mandarin Road

Sandra Parks, Stetson's widow, with his KKK robes before they were sent to Smithsonian


Warren Celli said...

You do not need to go undercover to rub shoulders with the KKK in Saint Augustine today, all you have to do is attend their hijacked government's commission meetings, workshops, etc.

And while John Regan was planning and building the city's disingenuous (relate so as to spew the hate), "Civil Rights Monuments and Museum", tyrannical Jim Crow was alive and well in the city — and STILL IS — as another great human being, Greg Travous can attest to from the grave.

More Ed Slavins please!

Anonymous said...

What a great man...always admired himand neat that you knew him!