Terra Sigillata

i-7da8ddf63dfee0929bc823595e4d2952-stetson small.jpgThe 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.

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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.

Comments

  1. #1 arby
    October 6, 2008

    There was an extended interview with him on Bob Edwards Weekend not too long ago. At least that’s where I think I heard it. Anybody have a link? It was great. Shamefully, I had never heard of him before. rb

  2. #2 Abel Pharmboy
    October 6, 2008

    rb, the interview was on 15 Nov 2005 and can be found here:
    http://www.bobedwards.info/ftopic778.html

    Since you mention it, the interview you note got Edwards interested enough in Kennedy to host the inaugural dedication of the Stetson Kennedy Foundation in Jacksonville, FL, on 30 Jan 2006. I was fortunate to attend and met a slew of luminaries including both Stetson and Bob Edwards (detailed in my post here). It was kind of my Forrest Gump moment.

  3. #3 arby
    October 6, 2008

    Whoa, paydirt! This is great, thanks a bunch. The interview I heard recently must have been from the archives, I would urge everyone and anyone to give it a listen. One of the reasons I had never heard of him before is that Freakonomics is unread under a pile of other unread stuff. I blame the internets. Thanks for this, he’s a great and very brave man. rb

  4. #4 Zuska
    October 6, 2008

    Abel, you move in awesome circles! Happy Birthday, Stetson, and many happy returns! Thanks for all you’ve done for all of us!

  5. #5 bioephemera
    October 6, 2008

    Wow – a long AND amazing life! I remember that chapter of Freakonomics, and was seriously impressed . . . hard to imagine anyone doing something similar today. Many happy returns!

  6. #6 MAX WATTS
    October 6, 2008

    very dear stetson:
    don’t know if you will recall Paris days, the duck in the bathtub in Montreuil, or Montrouge ? (my memory !) inspired me to a write…

    I am v glad to hear you made it to 92 ! (encouraging for someone just called an “oldie” in an email!)

    If you like, I will email “duck” to you, what edress ?
    all v best from Max Watts
    email: rosiek@bigpond.com