The author, human rights activist, folklorist, and environmentalist, Stetson Kennedy, is celebrating his 92nd birthday today in the company of friends and family near St. Augustine, Florida.
His website, StetsonKennedy.com, used to have a guestbook but the webmaster, his grandson Sean, took it down after extensive spamming.
So, please leave your birthday wishes in the comments below as we have it on very good authority that those close to Stetson actually read Terra Sigillata.
Much of my generation probably only knows Stetson Kennedy as the Klan-busting infiltrator popularized in Freakonomics by Stephen Dubner and economist Steven Levitt. Music fans may know of him from the eponymous lyrics penned by Woody Guthrie and put to music by Billy Bragg with Wilco on 2000′s Mermaid Avenue, Vol.II.
Kennedy is best-known for his undercover infiltration of the Ku Klux Klan in and around Atlanta during the 1940s. While he has been criticized for co-opting the stories of some compatriots as his own, there is no doubt that Kennedy risked his life in feeding Klan identities and codewords to the public, some of which were aired in four episodes of the Superman radio program. Kennedy was exiled to France when the Klan put a bounty on his head.
To urge federal action on the Klan, Kennedy appeared in 1948 (and was escorted out of) the US House Committee on Un-American Activities at the US Capitol wearing a KKK hood and robe while carrying a briefcase full of documents to raise awareness of the role of prominent leaders and regional officials in organized racial terrorism. (There is no truth to the rumor that some officials were unfazed and simply said, “Why, Senator Byrd, what brings you over to the House today?,” as the West Virginia senator did not take office until 1959).
Kennedy’s writing career begin when he dropped out of the University of Florida during the Great Depression and was hired by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) for the Florida Writers’ Project to catalog the state’s African-American and white folklore, oral history and music, in some cases together with the noted author, Zora Neale Hurston. These activities fueled the 1942 publication of Palmetto Country, a cornerstone of Florida folklife.
Stetson has barely slowed down 65 years later and, in fact, has just released a new book, Grits & Grunts, “a treasure trove gleaned from the rich multiculture that came to full-flower on “The Rock” during the first half of the twentieth century, ‘when Key West was Key West.’”
So, if you’re so inclined, wish the old lion a happy birthday.
Photo credits: 1) File photo of the St. Augustine Record. 2) My copy of the book.