Stetson Kennedy, the man for me

by Andy Kubis, producer

Stetson Kennedy died last week after a lifetime spent in the service of his country, whether his country appreciated it at the time or not.

During the Great Depression, Kennedy worked for the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration. He traveled around Florida with Zora Neale Hurston, collecting and documenting songs, stories and folklore, often from turpentine labor camps. Hurston and Kennedy worked well together because they were more interested in listening to people than in studying them. And they understood the importance of what they were documenting. Stetson once told an interviewer, “Zora and I were at a turpentine camp near Cross City where we met this octogenarian who’d been born ‘on the turp’mntine.’ I asked why he didn’t just leave, and he said ‘the onliest way out is to die out and you have to die ‘cause if you tries to leave they’ll kill you.’

In the 1940s, Kennedy infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan and shared their secrets with the media, including the writers of the very popular Superman radio series for kids.  The result was a series of episodes in which Superman battled the Klan. Kennedy’s intent was to trivialize the Klan’s rituals and codewords and it worked. The authors of the 2005 book Freakonomics dubbed Kennedy “the greatest single contributor to the weakening of the Ku Klux Klan.”

Stetson Kennedy ran for the U.S. Senate  in 1950. He lost, not suprisingly, but his campaign slogans were memorable: “Rights Supremacy, Not White Supremacy.”

We learned about Stetson Kennedy from a Woody Guthrie song and wondered if he was still around. This was back in 2006. Bob invited him on the program and we’re replaying their hour-long conversation this morning.

You can learn more about Kennedy and his life here and here


Stetson Kennedy
Words by Woody Guthrie, Music by Billy Bragg

I done spent my last three cents
Mailing my letter to the president
I didn’t make a show, I didn’t make a dent
So I’m swinging over to this independent gent
Stetson Kennedy
Writing his name in

I cain’t win out to save my soul
Long as Smathers-Dupont’s got me in the hole
Them war profit boys are squawking and balking
That’s what’s got me out here walking and talking
Knocking on doors and windows
Wake up and run down election morning
And scribble in Stetson Kennedy

I ain’t the world’s best writer nor the world’s best speller
But when I believe in something I’m the loudest yeller
If we fix it so’s you can’t make money on war
We’ll all forget what we’re killing folks for
We’ll find us a peace job equal and free
Dump Smathers-Dupont in a salty sea
Well, this makes Stetson Kennedy the man for me