scribble in stetson kennedy

“I ain’t the world’s best writer, ain’t the world’s best speller, but when I believe in somethin’ I’m the loudest yeller. If we fix it so we can’t make no money off war, well then we’ll all forget what we was killin’ folks for.. this made Stetson Kennedy the man for me.”
woody_beluthaWoody Guthrie wrote these lyrics when Stetson Kennedy decided to run for public office in 1950 on a “Total Equality” ticket. You may remember Woody Guthrie from such classics as ‘This Land Is Your Land’ and myriad other folk songs from the 30s through the 50s. He wrote this particular lyric when he was crashing in a little secret garden called Beluthahatchee. A secret garden that Stetson Kennedy inherited from his father.
When you are traveling south on San Jose Boulevard in Jacksonville, it is easy to get lost among the Mandarin strip malls, but just after Julington Creek there is a historic landmark sign on the left. It explains that Beluthahatchee is a Muskogee word for “dark waters,” but Zora Neale Hurston didn’t know that when she named the place. According to the folklore Hurston knew, Beluthahatchee is a place where “everything is forgiven and forgotten.”
“Welcome to Beluthahatchee,” Stetson Kennedy said as he led me into his beautiful home. It is a little paradise perched on a lake just behind those Mandarin strip malls. “Make yourself ta’ home, as we say here in the South.”
It is bizarre that a national treasure like Stetson Kennedy even lives in the Jacksonville area. This amazing man has been part of the fight for equality for African Americans since the 1930s. It is made even more unusual considering that he is a native of Jacksonville. His uncle was the Great Titan of the Klu Klux Klan for Jacksonville’s congressional district and his grandfather fought for the Confederacy during the civil war.
“In my childhood I’d see [my uncle] parade down the street and I’d ask my mother what that was all about. She said ‘They keep the colored folks in town in their place.’ So that was my introduction to the Klan. They were important to Jacksonville history. They were the lawmen, including the Sheriff and the Chief of Police and many of their officers. Lawmen were Klansmen. That was Jacksonville.”
Stetson Kennedy first became known to the world at large when he published a book called The Klan Unmasked (originally titled I Rode with the Klu Klux Klan), wherein he went undercover in the Klan as only a white southerner could. When the FBI didn’t care about the information he was learning from being inside the Klan (in fact, they informed the leadership of the Klan that they had a mole), he told the producers of the Superman radio show, one of the most popular radio shows of its time, secret code words and terminology that was exclusive to the Klan. Suddenly every listener of the Superman episodes about ‘The Clan of the Fiery Cross’ were privy to the organizations secrets.
The Klan Unmasked wasn’t, however, his first book. He had already published Palmetto Country, a book about Florida folklore and history. He gathered the information for this book during the Great Depression working for Roosevelt’s New Deal, in the Works Progress Administration, to collect the ethnic stories of Florida’s past. He was a senior reporter and under his management for a time was the “junior reporter,” Harlem Renaissance author Zora Neale Hurston. Since then, he has fought his entire life against racism. This is why the election of Barack Obama was such a big deal to him.
“I’ve been getting mail from friends and family saying that I played a big part in this election. It is true that I worked at it full time for a lifetime. I wasn’t the only one, there were a great many, thousands of people who also worked for this day, but I never expected to live to see it.”
Kennedy has long been an unlikely advocate in the Deep South and an outspoken agent of the “counterklan” (as he called himself) throughout the better part of the 20th century. He admits that things have changed drastically since those days.
“I think one of the positive things on the scene is the extent to which we’ve been able to capture the public mind and educate it to the point that people don’t like to be called a racist. In the first half of my life people were proud of being racist… Nowadays that has been reversed. No businessman, no candidate for public office, no public official in office can afford to be publicly called a racist. That’s a very powerful tool.”
Born 1916 in Jacksonville, Kennedy has seen it all first hand. He talks about a time when a black man would be struck down in public for looking a white child in the eye and now he has watched the first African American President of the United States get elected by an overwhelming majority. In the interim he witnessed women get the vote, prohibition, the Great Depression, World War II and assassinations. He actively participated in the civil rights movement and worked against segregation.
When Kennedy brought us into his home at Beluthahatchee, he gave us a tour of what he calls “the Woody Room.” It is adorned with memorabilia from the time he spent with his old friend and fellow activist in that house at the northernmost tip of St. Johns County. Guthrie reportedly wrote more than eighty songs at Beluthahatchee. Kennedy has framed the letter scrawled in the inside of a booksleeve for Palmetto Country wherein Guthrie first wrote Kennedy and warned he may one day wander up to Beluthahatchee. It didn’t happen quite like that – Stetson got a call from the Jacksonville bus station when Guthrie arrived in town, but the two became fast friends.
Kennedy wasn’t the hero to his white neighbors in Jacksonville that he was to the African American community at large. During Jacksonville’s civil rights movement, a sit-in organized by a young Jacksonville African American named Rutledge Pearson, the Klan brazenly armed angry white citizens to fight protesting African Americans. Kennedy found himself running with his African American friends from an angry white mob. He couldn’t quite keep up with them and the mob caught up to him. He quickly realized they thought he was leading them, so he fell back into the mob and escaped unscathed.
Kennedy thought that when the civil rights legislation of the mid-sixties was passed, he could alter his focus.
“I’m gonna go fishing. Change my focus. I’ve spent my life on the race question and I’m gonna drop it. Let you folks do your own thing. But I spent the second half of my life on the same question.”
Although the tides of racism have turned, and the election of Barack Obama is a major signifier that America has come a long way, Kennedy admits that the struggle is still not over.
“It’s the Klan-minded people in plain clothes in the halls of government and sitting on the bench that are a greater threat than the old bedsheet brigade.”
At ninety-three, he still doesn’t have much time for fishing. As he talks he fidgets and seems always antsy to get to work doing something. Next door to his home in Beluthahatchee is another cabin that has been turned into the headquarters for The Stetson Kennedy Foundation, an organization dedicated to the preservation of “fellow man and Mother Earth.” The facility is also intended to be a community center and it houses Stetson’s extensive library and his collection of cultural artifacts from all over the world.
The mission of the Foundation is to “do all that it can to help carry forward mankind’s unending struggle for human rights in a free, peaceful, harmonious, democratic, just, humane, bounteous and joyful world, to nurture our cultural heritages, and to faithfully discharge our commitment of stewardship over Mother Earth and all her progeny.”
As peculiar a setting as Jacksonville is for it, there is a literary history in this deeply Southern town that we can proclaim as an enormous boon to the struggle for racial equality. First there was Harriet Beecher Stowe who wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852 and wintered along the south bank of the St Johns, only a few miles from Kennedy’s home at Beluthahatchee.
That book was said to bring about the end of slavery in the US. Then, nearly one hundred years later, Kennedy wrote books about the Klan and life in the South that certainly lead to end of segregation and whose life’s work undoubtedly paved the way for the election of an African American to the highest office. Indeed, as the Guthrie song says, “We’ll find us a peace job equal and free… Well, this makes Stetson Kennedy the man for me.”
For more information about Stetson Kennedy, visit his website at stetsonkennedy.com. There you can listen to many of his recordings for the WPA (as well as the only known recordings of Zora Neale Hurston), hear an NPR program featuring him and plenty of early recordings of Woody Guthrie’s songs. You can also learn about his current projects (look for announcements about an upcoming folk festival with some all-star guests), his most recent book Grits and Grunts, and plenty of other hidden gems.

About Jon Bosworth

april, 2022

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