Stetson Speaks at Oral History Association
By Joe Atkins
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. - Stetson Kennedy, one of the last of the firebrand activists from the 1930s, veteran of Franklin D. Roosevelt's Federal Writers' Project, Ku Klux Klan infiltrator, fellow traveler with the likes of Woody Guthrie and Zora Neale Hurston, made a recent confession here: an ideological bias has colored his life's work.
"My ideology was the same as Woody Guthrie and Carl Sandburg. The people, yes! Democracy, of and for the people."
Speaking to an audience of 50 or so at the Oral History Association's 40th annual meeting here, the 90-year-old Kennedy invoked a long-gone era in this country, a time when the federal government was "Uncle Sam", sticking up for the little guy rather than the big guys in the corporate boardrooms.
The Jacksonville, Florida, native talked of joining the Works Progress Administration and its Federal Writers' Project in 1937, taking responsibility for Florida in its state-by-state travelogue. The project was one of many efforts during FDR's "New Deal" to put the jobless-everyone from laborers to writers-to work, good and needed work that would keep their spirits high and serve the nation as well during the Great Depression.
The WPA paid him $37.50 every two weeks to travel through Florida interviewing and recording the histories of 100-year-old former slaves, veterans of the turpentine camps in the rural backwaters, anyone whose life contributed to the sprawling story of the nation as a whole. "We had two hundred field workers, most of them housewives, and they spoke the same language, had the same culture (of the interviewees). We'd interview former slaves, and we'd play back (the tape recorder) and they heard their own voices for the first time. They'd become instant ham actors." Kennedy and other workers such as legendary African American writer Zora Neale Hurston were on a mission to preserve the nation's oral history. Yet they constantly encountered the racism that infected not only the Deep South of north Florida, Arkansas and Mississippi but also the nation. "America was a nation of Archie Bunkers. Jim Crow was looking over our shoulders at everything we did." Called "the original angry young man" by Florida journalist Louis J. Salome, Kennedy would earned his greatest fame in the 1940s by going undercover to expose the Ku Klux Klan. He joined the Klan, learning its secret rituals and code words, risking his life each step of the way, but then casting a spotlight on the secret Klan world in such books as Southern Exposure, The Jim Crow Guide, and I Rode With The Ku Klux Klan. In 1952, Kennedy ran a write-in campaign for governor of Florida, and his good friend and frequent visitor, "This Land Is Your Land" composer Woody Guthrie penned a song for Stetson.