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The original 'angry young man' still finding wrongs to right
By Louis J. Salome, Palm Beach Post Staff
Sunday, August 19, 2001
Before you close the book on the 20th century, read all you can about Stetson Kennedy. Then, for further inspiration, find more.
Look him up, in no particular order, under Crusader, Dissident, Idealist, Radical, Civil Rights Firebrand, Newspaper Reporter, Historian, Union Organizer, Environmentalist, Folklorist, Prophet, Outcast, Angry Young Man, Angry Old Man, Survivor, Patriot, Ku Klux Klan Infiltrator.
A younger man approached Kennedy this month in a Jacksonville restaurant: "Stetson's a hero, you know," the man said, knowingly.
A Florida native, Kennedy is an American original, minted by personality, family, the South and the 1900s' versions of war, racism, poverty and hypocrisy -- and the fire for justice still burns in his contrarian core.
"I don't like to think I've mellowed," says Kennedy, almost 85, during two days of interviews at his rustic home 18 miles south of Jacksonville. "Mellowing is for wine, and my last words will be my most militant," he says with a chuckle.
Short, wiry and toe-to-toe tough, Kennedy is rushing to finish the half-dozen books he's been writing, including his autobiography, Dissident At Large. He'll be interrupted when he travels to the Florida Coalition for Peace and Justice Peace Camp in Waldo to receive the group's Benjamin Spock Peacemaker Award on Oct. 6, the day after his birthday.
A loner, Kennedy has marched in the streets, undermined hatemongers by wearing their own robes and rattled static congressional committees with information and theatrics.
He has outlived most of his enemies and allies, leaving him often feeling isolated and voiceless. But he hasn't outlived his causes, and he ignites new passions.
Four of Kennedy's earliest books, once well known and then forgotten, found new audiences when they were republished in 1989 and the early 1990s by university presses in Florida.
Now, with the Internet as ally, Kennedy is on a rampage again, this time to save Mother Earth: No planet, no human rights, no nothing, argues Kennedy from his cedar cabin on stilts that he shares with his wife, Joyce, their five cats and assorted wild friends on a swamp-like lake in fading Old Florida.
Halfway through his ninth decade, Stetson Kennedy remains as angry and combative as when he infiltrated and outwitted the Georgia Klan in the late 1940s and survived to write The Klan Unmasked.
Kennedy mocked the KKK as the Koo Koo Klan and the Dumb Klux, proving the power of ridicule as an antidote for social poison. The Klan responded with a $1,000-a-pound price on his 135-pound body, but Kennedy dodged the bounty-hunters and prison, too, despite close surveillance by the FBI and other law enforcement agencies for his union activities and his association with black leaders.
He credits "fool's luck" with keeping the Klan from cutting his throat or agents of the law, many of whom protected the Klan, from sinking him in a Florida swamp -- luck and the fact that he is white and from a prominent Southern family, Kennedy says, admitting, "I feel almost an alien in the land of my birth."
"I was at a family dinner and one of my sisters said, 'I do believe you'd rather be with them than with us.' I said, 'As a matter of fact, I would.' And I got up and packed my bags and the break has lasted all these decades."
The author of six books and countless articles raging against racial segregation and other forms of injustice in his own country, Kennedy also exposed oppression in Europe, Africa and Asia in the 1950s.
Discrimination and injustice drove him from the United States. Wherever he went, he found oppression in different clothes: "One people riding on the backs of another group."
His philosophy is simple because it is based on human conduct; it is complex for the same reason.
"I recall Gandhi said ultimately all things devolve into the political," Kennedy says. "But I would argue that ultimately all things devolve into pro-people and anti-people. And I can pose the question, 'Which side are you on?' "
For him, the United States has two sides: "One in which you would like to have faith and the other which you'd like to kick in the ass and out of office."
When Kennedy recalls his wars against racists or government harassment, he lets out an "I got them that time" victory chuckle.
"I was in Atlanta making a regular talk and somebody came running in and said, 'There's a bunch of people in cars parked out there waiting for you to come out.' (Chuckle.) So they got me down the back fire escape and out that way. I was always coming close."
But he laughs hard -- and means it -- when he recalls the wisdom, his kind of wit, of an old black man he interviewed decades ago: "When you ain't got no education, you've got to use your brain." Clawing his fingernails hard across the tablecloth in his kitchen, Kennedy explains himself: "If you're looking for someone to be upbeat, you've got the wrong man."
He admits to "appreciable" progress in race relations and says the death of segregation removed "a great curse." But reactionaries are making progress, too, he cautions.
The "token black" has been replaced by the "token black middle class, which is all to the good," he says. "But it loses the black masses in the inner cities, where blacks remain as skill-less and jobless and hopeless as they ever were."
He also fears the Klan is being reshaped into white-supremacist militias. "The Klan's here, no question about that. I saw the militia training just down the road, heavily armed."
Kennedy's voice rises, his nails dig deeper into the cloth, when he warns of the environment being poisoned and "this big idea of a global village turning out to be in reality a global sweatshop."
If he were a little younger, Kennedy would be marching against global trade agreements and rich countries exploiting the labor of poor nations.
"I was speaking recently at the University of Colorado, and kids were talking about free speech and I said, 'Yeah, but what do you have to say?' And I said the reason you have free speech, in my opinion, is in large part because you've been fixed, mentally fixed like trained pets."
Hawks soar in unchained beauty above the cypress sentinels and swampy depths of Stetson Kennedy's world. A large delivery truck snaps branches but still can't penetrate the long dirt driveway that leads to the house called Lake Dwellers. So two men haul the clothes dryer by hand to the side of the house. There it will sit on a porch just above the water where a nesting 6-foot alligator lives to leap after the fish Kennedy hooks for dinner. His daddy, George W. Kennedy, bought this property in 1948 to escape from his second wife.
Kennedy calls his world Beluthahatchee, which can be described as an Afro-Florida word rooted in black folklore for a place like Camelot or Shangri-La. It is here; it is nowhere; it is everywhere.
Beluthahatchee and Kennedy suit each other. They are larger than life, as much spirit as matter.
When he is writing in his second-floor study or on the porch -- "grinding out ammo" for justice, as his friend, songwriter and musician Woody Guthrie used to call Kennedy's labors -- Kennedy draws inspiration from Beluthahatchee.
But as an address, Beluthahatchee is a mirage. His house, decorated in eclectic "Kennedy shipwreck" style, is in Fruit Cove, an unincorporated area of St. Johns County, and he gets his mail in the small nearby town of Switzerland.
This is an inside joke because Kennedy went to Geneva, in the other Switzerland, in 1952 to address the United Nations about forced labor in the United States.
After Geneva he went to Paris to write, and there Jean Paul Sartre published Kennedy's Jim Crow Guide to segregation laws in the United States.
"In Paris a CIA young yuppie type came to me and said, 'This Jim Crow Guide hurts like hell and if you'll repudiate it and say it was a put-up job, we'll see to it that you're financially independent for life.' I said, 'Well, if you can point to anything in it that's not true, I'll be happy to correct it for free.' (Chuckle.) So I ended up calling a press conference and telling the foreign press about the proposition."