Sunday, August 27, 2023

Stetson Kennedy, R.I.P.

August 27, 2011 was an anniversary of Ax Handle Saturday in Jacksonville, and also the day that my mentor, KKK-busting civil rights hero Wm. Stetson Kennedy died.  Later, I wrote about him in St. Augustine Record:  

St. Augustine Record Guest Column re: Stetson Kennedy

Guest column: Stetson Kennedy was a true hero, ahead of his time
Posted: September 3, 2011 - 11:49pm
St. Augustine

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.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Conservative so called leaders use racism and religion for political power. Also, anti-government sentiment. These people are neo fascists not to mention whether intentional or not they serve the upper classes economically to their own detriment. How does money trickle down with low wages and high prices?