Stetson Kennedy Papers
Scope and Content
Besides documenting the career and writings of Stetson Kennedy, the collection is an important record of labor and civil rights movements of the day, for which he frequently advocated, and also contains information about many of the people Kennedy knew and worked with. The papers are also a significant record of Florida folk culture and folk life, of the Federal Writers’ Project in Florida, and of Kennedy’s lifelong crusade against the Ku Klux Klan.
The following sections of the papers are currently available: Biography; Thoughts & Sayings; Articles Written by Stetson Kennedy; Articles Written about Kennedy; Correspondence; Book Reviews; Talks and Appearances; Awards, and Events; Unpublished works; subject files; and photographs. There is an extensive library of Audio-visual Materials, many of which have been converted to digital format. Electronic records are still being processed.
The collection also includes a microfilm set of the Stetson Kennedy Papers at the New York Public Library pertaining in particular to his work against the Klan in the 1940s and portions of his papers and correspondence at Georgia State University dealing with folklife and folklore.
- 1916 - 2016
- Majority of material found within 1970 - 2011
- Kennedy, Stetson, 1916-2011. (Person)
Most of the collection is open for use. All major and minor works of Stetson Kennedy, whether published or unpublished, have been marked “Restricted.” The University of Florida does not own the literary rights to these works, which remain with the estate of Stetson Kennedy and his executors, and researchers should therefore consult with us when using those materials. There are also six “Restricted” boxes of random and unprocessed pages of Kennedy’s writing which have not been put in order or identified. A box of Ku Klux Klan (KKK) slogans and propaganda is also “Restricted” and researchers should be mindful that it contains derogatory words and images.
Two boxes are “Closed” to the public because of legal and privacy concerns. These materials will be opened after 75 years or when the issues involving them have been resolved.
Please note, all rights to published books and unpublished manuscripts by Stetson Kennedy rest with his estate through the Stetson Kennedy Trust. Use or publication of these works requires permission of the estate.
William Stetson Kennedy (1916-2011), activist, writer, and folklorist, was born October 5, 1916 at his family home on Walnut Street in Jacksonville, Florida.
Kennedy’s long life as a writer and activist brought him to the forefront of organizations opposing the Ku Klux Klan, as well as into contact with many well-known contemporaries, including writers Zora Neale Hurston and Richard Wright, writer and radio host Studs Terkel, and folk singers Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. Author of seven books, his best-known works are Palmetto Country, The Klan Unmasked, and Southern Exposure.
Kennedy grew up in Depression-era Jacksonville and also spent many hours of his childhood exploring the woods surrounding his family’s property along the St. Johns River, near current-day Switzerland, Fla. Fond of the outdoors, he discovered local flora, shot game, and peeled sugar cane right off of his childhood back porch. His love of Florida’s natural world, and its people, inspired his lifelong activism in seeking justice for both the citizens and the environment of Florida and the nation as a whole.
Kennedy attended the University of Florida in the academic year 1935-1936, attaining his sole "A" in a class called "Man and His Thinking," while he skipped classes on "Reading, Speaking, and Writing" and "General Mathematics." Kennedy’s commitment to social activism was already apparent at UF, where he helped to found the Florida Intercollegiate Peace Council. While attending UF, Kennedy began his employment with the National Youth Administration, an agency of the WPA.
Kennedy was disenchanted with college life, and already at odds with prevailing prejudices and political sentiments on campus. Following his freshman year, he dropped out, shipped his belongings to Key West, and hitch-hiked south to the Keys to try his hand, as he would later quip, at independent study. In Key West he studied local dialects, began to publish professionally, and met his first wife, Edith Amelia Ogden. The couple married in 1937. Eventually, Kennedy applied to get work with the Federal Writers’ Project in Gainesville, having what he called the essential qualification - no means of supporting himself.
Employment with the Federal Writers’ Project from 1937 to 1942 allowed him to travel all around Florida collecting information on folk dialects, traditional folklore, and folksongs. Relocating to Jacksonville, he became an editor on the Project, having, among other responsibilities, the task of editing contributions from noted Florida novelist Zora Neale Hurston. The work that Kennedy did with Hurston and with colleague and musicologist Alan Lomax later earned them all recognition as founders in the field of oral history.
Kennedy’s work with the WPA also solidified beliefs that had developed from a young age about the unethical nature of class and race exploitation in the South. These beliefs brought his relationship with his family to a head in the 1940s. The Kennedy family was deeply entrenched in the traditions of the South. His maternal grandfather had been a lieutenant in the Confederate Army, his mother wrote papers for the United Daughters of the Confederacy, and his uncle Gordon Perkins was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. While home in Jacksonville for a family dinner, Kennedy had a falling out that alienated him from his family. After a comment by his sister Martha, who said she believed Kennedy "would rather be with them [Negroes] than with us," Kennedy replied "As a matter of fact, I would." He rose from the dinner table, packed his bags and was never again admitted back into the family fold.
His days with the Federal Writer’s Project also produced material for his first book, Palmetto Country, which was published in 1942 to encouraging reviews. Kennedy then went to work for the Congress of Industrial Organizations on "Operation Dixie" in Atlanta, Ga., where he helped to write union pamphlets.
While working in Georgia, Kennedy began what would become his best-known example of direct action. In 1945, on his own initiative, he infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan, joining Atlanta Klavern No. 1 under the name John Perkins, and arranging to provide information on Klan activities to an assistant state attorney in Georgia as an unofficial undercover agent. He particularly strived to reveal the workings of the "flog squad," the military branch of the Klan, also known as the Klavaliers. Kennedy focused on this branch because "that’s what needed to be stopped most of all."
While undercover, Kennedy began leaking information about Klan activities to various radio shows. Drew Pearson, noted newspaper columnist and radio announcer in Washington, D.C., featured a Sunday segment called "Minutes from the Klan’s Last Meeting." Perhaps most famously, in 1946 Kennedy began supplying secret Klan information to the writers for the radio program The Adventures of Superman. The information was incorporated into the scripts of a series of episodes called "The Clan of the Fiery Cross," in which Superman, Jimmy Olsen, and the Daily Planet take on a hate group. In addition to casting the Klan as villains, and giving it a bad press, the show also alarmed Klan members, who realized that an infiltrator was passing on Klan rituals and other secrets to the radio show’s 4.5 million listeners. Kennedy later said the negative publicity and the ongoing leak of information caused prominent members of the Klan to quit the organization out of fear of exposure.
In December 1946, Kennedy blew his cover by testifying in open court against members of a neo-Nazi organization called the Columbians. Subsequently, his evidence on Klan activities contributed to the revocation of the Klan’s non-profit, tax free charter in Georgia and damaged the organization financially.
Kennedy eventually produced three books based on his undercover work and investigative reporting. All of them were exposés on the abuses of the Jim Crow South: Southern Exposure (1946), I Rode with the Ku Klux Klan (1954, published abroad in England and France, and only published in the United States as The Klan Unmasked in 1990), and The Jim Crow Guide to the USA (1956, also first published in France; originally titled, The Jim Crow Guide: The Way It Was Before the Overcoming).
In 1947 Kennedy moved to New York and worked for the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith as its special consultant on hate groups. He became National Research Director for the Anti-Nazi League. During his time in New York he wrote for the Pittsburg Courier, the Afro-American, and the Amsterdam News under the pseudonyms Daddy Mention and Snow James.
In 1950, back in Florida, Kennedy ran a senatorial campaign against George Smathers, standing as a "color-blind," anti-segregation, write-in candidate on a platform of total equality. He was endorsed by the Black Progressive Voters League headed by Harry T. Moore, who claimed to have registered 100,000 Black voters sympathetic to Kennedy’s campaign message. Kennedy only received 813 write-in votes.
Two years later, Kennedy was in Geneva, testifying about debt peonage practices in Florida at the UN Committee on Labor. This led to eight years of travel throughout Western and Eastern Europe and into the Soviet Union and China. One of the least known parts of his career, his time abroad brought him into contact with Richard Wright and other ex-patriot writers. He spent time in East Germany and was in Hungary in 1956 when the Soviet military suppressed a Hungarian uprising against Soviet rule. During the 1950s Kennedy saw some of his work published as articles in Russian and Chinese, and brought out his best-known work I Rode with the Ku Klux Klan. Much of that book, which had been partially written before Kennedy left the United States, was completed in a Paris police station, where Kennedy had to go daily to renew his visa to stay in France.
Kennedy returned to Florida in 1960 and by 1965 he was working for an organization born of the "war on poverty" campaign of the Johnson administration, the Greater Jacksonville Economic Opportunity Organization (GJEO). He worked for the GJEO under several different titles for 14 years before leaving in 1979.
In 1972 Kennedy and his wife Joyce Ann Kennedy, a teacher, settled at his property at Lake Beluthahatchee (St. Johns County), in a house they built called the "Lake Dwellers." For the next two decades, Kennedy focused on his writing and activism before becoming "rediscovered" in the early 1990s as an important Florida folklorist, activist, and writer. He was honored with numerous awards and accolades including the Cavallo Award, The Jules Verne Medal of Honor, and an Honorary Doctorate from the University of North Florida among many others. Kennedy’s final published works appeared as Grits and Grunts (2008) and The Florida Slave (2011). He left at least seven unpublished book manuscripts, including two versions of his memoir, and some shorter unpublished works, at the time of his death. In 2003 his home at Beluthahatchee was recognized as a National Literary Landmark in recognition of the works produced by Woody Guthrie while living on the property in the 1940s; and it was again designated a National Literary Landmark in 2014 in recognition of Kennedy and his works.
Though Stetson Kennedy may not always be found in traditional civil rights histories, his lifelong labor toward social justice continues to touch on many contemporary issues, including hate crimes, police-community relations, discrimination and minority rights, and protection of the environment. Kennedy strove to remind people "that racism, sexism and class oppression were not artifacts of the past," but present injustices that require attention and opposition. His legacy is carried on by the mission of the Stetson Kennedy Foundation.
55.04 Linear Feet (131 Boxes and 1 Oversize Flat File)
Language of Materials
Articles, manuscripts, correspondence, talks, subject files from the working papers of writer and activist Stetson Kennedy.
University of Florida Smathers Library Building
The current contents of the Stetson Kennedy Papers at the University of Florida comprise materials donated to the university by the Stetson Kennedy Trust in 2013 and papers transferred to UF from Special Collections at the University of South Florida, Tampa, in 2014.
Processing of portions of these papers was done by Special Collections, University of South Florida Library, Tampa, who generously transferred custody to the George A. Smathers Library in 2013. Articles and audiovisual materials in the collection were processed and arranged by UF student interns and assistants Sarah Calise, Christopher VanDemark, Chelsea Jimenez, Anne Carey, Jordan Vaal, Casey Gymrek, Lucy Gosselin, Jeffrey Abalos, Katie Gresham, Anna Armitage, and Jennifer Thelusma. A major part of the correspondence and subject files was processed by Amanda Beyer-Purvis serving as the graduate research assistant to Special Collections.
NOTE: Electronic records are still being processed.
- A Guide to the Stetson Kennedy Papers
- Finding aid created by Amanda Beyer-Purvis and James Cusick
- January 2018 (Updated April 2023)
- Description rules
- Finding Aid Prepared Using Dacs
- Language of description
- Script of description
- Language of description note
- Description is written in English.
Part of the Special and Area Studies Collections, George A. Smathers Libraries, University of Florida Repository
George A. Smathers Libraries
PO Box 117005
Gainesville Florida 32611-7005 United States of America