MIAMI — Author and folklorist Stetson Kennedy, who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan six decades ago and exposed its secrets to authorities and the public but was also criticized for possibly exaggerating his exploits, died Saturday. He was 94.
Kennedy died at Baptist Medical Center South near St. Augustine, where he had been receiving hospice care.
In the 1940s, Kennedy used the “Superman” radio show to expose and ridicule the Klan’s rituals. In the 1950s he wrote “I Rode with the Ku Klux Klan,” which was later renamed “The Klan Unmasked,” and “The Jim Crow Guide.”
“Exposing their folklore – all their secret handshakes, passwords and how silly they were, dressing up in white sheets” was one of the strongest blows delivered to the Klan, said Peggy Bulger, director of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, in a 2007 interview with The Associated Press. She was a friend of Kennedy for about 30 years and did her doctoral thesis on his work as a folklorist.
“If they weren’t so violent, they would be silly.”
Kennedy began his crusades against what he called “homegrown racial terrorists” during World War II after he was deemed unworthy for military service because of a back injury. He served as director of fact-finding for the southeastern office of the Anti-Defamation League and served as director of the Anti-Nazi League of New York.
“All my friends were in service and they were being shot at in a big way. They were fighting racism whether they knew it or not,” Kennedy said. “At least I could see if I could do something about the racist terrorists in our backyard.”
Using evidence salvaged from the Grand Dragon’s waste basket, he enabled the Internal Revenue Service to press for collection of an outstanding $685,000 tax lien from the Klan in 1944 and he helped draft the brief used by the state of Georgia to revoke the Klan’s national corporate charter in 1947.
Kennedy infiltrated the Klan by using the name of a deceased uncle who had been a member as a way to gain trust and membership.
But the Klan did not know that Kennedy was giving its secrets to the outside world, including the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, the Anti-Defamation League and Drew Pearson, a columnist for The Washington Post.
When he learned of plans for the Klan to take action, he would make sure it was broadcast, thwarting them.
“They were afraid to do anything. They knew that somebody was on the inside. They had first-class detectives looking, and I was trying hard not to be caught,” Kennedy said.
Kennedy said he always feared exposure and remained scared throughout his life. “Nonstop, to date,” mentioning threats, the shooting of his dog and frequent attempts to burn his home.
In the late 1940s, Kennedy took his fight against the Klan to a national stage when, while working as a consultant to the Superman radio show, he provided information to producers on information about the Klan from their rituals to secret code words. The episodes were titled “Clan of the Fiery Cross.”
He testified before a federal grand jury in Miami about the Klan chain of command in the 1951 bombing death of Florida NAACP leader Harry Moore and bombings aimed at black, Catholic and Jewish centers in Miami.
He presented evidence in federal court in Washington, D.C., of Klan bombings and other violence aimed at preventing blacks from voting in the 1944 and 1946 elections.
Late in life, Kennedy was miffed at allegations that some of his writings about the Klan were fabricated or exaggerated. Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt, co-authors of the book “Freakonomics,” alleged that Kennedy misrepresented portions of “I Rode With the Ku Klux Klan,” as did critic Ben Green, a Tallahassee writer about the civil rights era.
“He’s done some very admirable things: he stood up against the Klan at a time when that was an unpopular position …. and he has been a tireless advocate, exposing and reporting on Klan activities for many decades,” Green once said. “The problem, and the saddest part of all this, is that what he actually did was apparently not enough for him. So Stetson has felt compelled to exaggerate and embellish what he actually did, and in some cases, make up or take credit for things he didn’t do.”
Kennedy acknowledged that some of the material came from another man who also infiltrated the Klan, but did not want his name used. He said he intermingled his experiences and that of the other man in a narrative to make them more compelling.
“It was hardly a cover up. I’ve been doing this for too many decades to owe anybody much of an apology,” Kennedy said. “It sort of hurt my feelings.”
Bulger defended Kennedy, saying he was always candid about his combination of two narratives into one and his purpose was to expose the Klan to a larger audience. Kennedy wrote the book in the style of a Mickey Spillane novel, she said.
“It was common at the time to embellish,” she said, “but he actually did infiltrate the Klan to do this work. He was always upfront, he never lied.”
Andrew Rosenkranz, Florida director of the Anti-Defamation League, also defended Kennedy, saying that his compilations shouldn’t detract from the good he did.
“He stood up against widespread racism,” Rosenkranz said in a recent interview.
Born Oct. 5, 1916, in Jacksonville, William Stetson Kennedy was related on his mother’s side to John B. Stetson, the hat manufacturer. He was friends as a young man with Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, the Pulitzer-prize winning author of “The Yearling.” He later supervised famed African-American writer Zora Neale Hurston when they were both collecting folklore in the Florida Writers Project during the Depression.
“Florida was doubly blessed by having Marjorie Rawlings perpetuate the cracker white lore and Zora to portray the African, Floridian lore,” Kennedy said.
A frequent visitor to Beluthahatchee, Kennedy’s home and retreat near Fruit Cove, was singer and songwriter, Woody Guthrie, best known for his song, “This Land is Your Land.”
Kennedy continued working on books and speeches into his 90s, letting neither age nor the Klan slow him down. He married in 2006 for a seventh time to Parks, an author, former city commissioner and bookstore owner in St. Augustine.
“The truth of the matter is I never aspired to be a writer. Writing was a means to the end,” Kennedy once said. “I can’t recommend it, there’s no money in it.”