Happy Birthday, Stetson Kennedy! With Some Advice from the Nation’s Foremost Klan-Buster

By James Cusick –

October 5th marks the birthday of folklorist, activist, writer and Klan-fighter William Stetson Kennedy (1916-2011).  He would have been 105 years old today!  And although Stetson is no longer here in the flesh, his words and warnings about the dangers we are facing from white supremacy speak directly to current times.  The following is drawn from his extensive collection of papers at the University of Florida.

Stetson Kennedy as boy
Stetson Kennedy in scout uniform, circa 1927.

Stetson Kennedy grew up in Jacksonville, Florida, in a society steeped in the prejudices that powered the racism of the Jim Crow South.  By the time he reached high school, he was wholly opposed to the injustices and discrimination that he saw around him.  He described himself at the time as intending to become a zoologist – but one that was going to study the human animal.  And he had no sympathy for the idea that some human animals were superior to others.

In the eyes of his school mates he was an oddball renegade, in the eyes of his own family a race traitor.  But from his teens on, he started to stand on his principles.  He proposed creating a high school fraternity that would be open to Jewish membership – challenging the whites-only policy of the day.  In his first year in college at the University of Florida, he started a student organization to support fighters in Spain who were opposed to Franco and the fascists.

In the 1930s he became a writer/editor with the Federal Writers Project in Florida, and one of the chief advocates for turning its major book, Florida: A Guide to the Southernmost State, into a true reflection of life in Florida.

That meant, he said, including information about “segregation, discrimination, intimidation, violence, lynchings, police brutality, judicial and political corruption, prison conditions, chain gains, sweat boxes, and so on . . .”  For three years he waged an on-again, off-again battle to get the darker side of the Sunshine State represented in the book.

Very soon, however, his fight against Jim Crow went beyond the editorial offices of the Writers Program.  What resonates most with modern times is his infiltration of the Georgia Ku Klux Klan in the 1940s, which led to his lifelong fight to oppose white supremacy in all of its forms.

Stetson Kennedy at the Writers Project 1938
Stetson at his desk in Jacksonville with the Federal Writers Project, 1938.

In 1946 and 1947, he took it upon himself to infiltrate the Georgia Klan, signing up under the alias “John Perkins,” in order to collect evidence of what was being discussed inside Klan Klavern meetings.  He quickly realized that he would not be able to report on Klan activities through normal channels of law enforcement – there were too many police among the membership.

“It was obvious with the police uniform blue and the Khaki uniforms of the sheriff’s deputies sticking out beneath the Klan robes – and there were prosecutors and judges – they were all in the Klan.”

Making his task even harder, people in political office were quick to push forward Black civil rights organizations and labor unions as subversive and dangerous, while ignoring or endorsing the activities of the Klan.  Stetson recalled trying to pass information on the Klan to agents of the FBI and “they showed less than no interest.  On one occasion, I recall an FBI agent waited until he followed me out to the elevator – may have had his desk wired and didn’t want it on the record – but saying, ‘Well, what do you know about black militants – that’s the real threat to America.’  He didn’t consider the Klan a threat at all.”

Ultimately, he had to make secret arrangements to give his evidence to Georgia governor Ellis Arnall and assistant attorney general Daniel Duke.  He compiled the reports that eventually became the grounds for revoking the Klan’s charter in Georgia – cutting off the organization’s ability to fundraise as a tax-exempt organization – as well as for his testimony in open court against the neo-Nazi group the Columbians.

But for Stetson, it was only the beginning.   He spent the rest of his life waging anti-Klan campaigns, constantly warning the public about the menace of Fascist and white supremacist groups (or “Home-grown terrorists,” as he preferred to call them).

Some examples of his actions –

In the 1940s he began releasing Klan codewords and naming Klan members to the Washington, D.C. newspaper columnist Drew Pearson for public publication.

During those same years he sent information about the Klan to the writers of the “Superman” radio program series, which then aired sixteen episodes that pitted the Man of Steel against the “Clan of the Fiery Cross” (June 10 – July 1, 1946).

Cover of The Klan Unmasked
Stetson went undercover to investigate Klan operations in Georgia. He had to blow his cover in order to bring his testimony to court. Klan leaders put a $1000 bounty on his head.

In the 1950s he took  issue with Confederate symbols in an editorial to the Nation:  “Buyers of the Stars and Bars seem to have in common a generalized resentment against ‘everything that’s going on’: prices, foreign policy, taxes, political corruption, and ‘uppity’ Negroes.  Needless to say the South’s eight million Negroes are not buying any Confederate flags, old or new.  To them the manner in which the flag is blossoming out is a reminder that white supremacy is still the order of the day.”

And in 1999 he wrote a letter to New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, advising him on steps the city should take against Klan marches.

“While this may arrive too late to apply to today’s scheduled Klan parade, perhaps you and your legal department will find something of use for future applications . . . The mask of the Klan is no less prima facie evidence of criminal intent than that of the bank robber. In fact, whereas the latter would rob us of our money, the former would strip us of something far more precious, our rights . . .”

“African-Americans, Hispanics and other minorities have long complained that lawmen have a propensity to look upon dark skins as probable cause; past time now to switch our focus to white robes, where it belongs.”

He went on to suggest having police videotape Klansmen’s vehicles, license tags, and faces when they gathered to march, a practice he had tried in the city of Palm Beach, Florida, to thwart a Klan rally.  “As a result, only a handful donned their robes and marched; the others elected to get lost in the small crowd.”

Stetson at Palm Beach Protest
Stetson taking part in an anti-Klan protest in Palm Beach, 1990.

What would Stetson say about our current times, when Black Lives Matter demonstrators can be characterized as “criminals” and neo-Nazi organizations as “patriots,” when the struggle to remove Confederate memorials goes on, when QAnon propaganda and hate crimes abound, and when armed and violent white militias can assault the nation’s Capitol with impunity?

Stetson did not live to see the past eleven years – but his reaction to the murder of George Floyd, to the Pulse and Marjory Stoneman Douglas mass shootings, and to January 6 would undoubtedly have been the same one that he had when witnessing a rally of 3000 Klansmen at Stone Mountain in 1948: “Last night’s gathering scared me,” he wrote in his newspaper coverage. “I think it ought to scare the nation.  This could be a preview to the days when the Klan marched 50,000 strong down Pennsylvania Ave.”

And, from 1998, more than two decades ago, this warning –

“The homegrown would-be ethnic cleansers in our midst have been broadcasting their agenda for decades, and have, in recent times, treated us to demos writ large in blood.”

“First came the Oklahoma City blockbuster, leaving 164 “sheeple” dead and 500 injured, followed by Columbine High, planned as a ‘big kill’ but fizzled out with 13 dead and 23 wounded.  And then the Chicago drive-by shooting spree that killed two and wounded nine more.  How many such messages is it going to take to awaken us to the danger?

We are still the world’s best working demonstration that peoples of every race, culture and creed can get along nicely under one flag, under law and in society – if the preachers and practitioners of hate would just leave us alone.

The only way we can stop ethnic cleansing from taking root in America is to wake up, round up all the hate mongers who are inciting and/or practicing genocide and other hate crimes, and convict them for the criminal conspirators that they are.”

It’s 2021 – and Stetson Kennedy is still the most fervent anti-Kluxer among us.