Investigation of Stephen J. Dubner & Steven D. Leavitt Article
By Charlie Patton - The Florida Times-Union
January 29, 2006
A times-Union investigation reveals embellishments by Stetson Kennedy, but finds support for the events his books depicts.
At 89, his health failing, most of his old friends and lovers long gone, Stetson Kennedy occasionally complains that he has lived too long. But it could be argued he has lived just long enough. Long enough to have passed from pariah to hero, from obscurity to fame.
Once "the most hated man in North Florida," to quote what a Florida professor told the St. Petersburg Times, he has become one of the most honored. Like a figure out of the folklore he once studied and wrote about, his legend has grown, partly because he neglected to set the record absolutely straight.
But on the eve of yet another tribute, Monday's gala fundraiser for the Stetson Kennedy Foundation, there's a shadow over Beluthahatchee, the little lakeside cabin in northern St. Johns County where Kennedy has lived since 1972.
Three weeks ago, journalist Stephen J. Dubner and economist Steven D.Leavitt, authors of the best-selling book Freakonomics, wrote a column about Kennedy in The New York Times Magazine. The authors, who lionized Kennedy in their book, now attacked him. Under the headline "Hoodwinked,"they questioned whether Kennedy had ever personally infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan, an experience he wrote about in his book The Klan Unmasked.
"The hero of the Klan story was Stetson Kennedy, a lifelong human-rights agitator who is best-known for having infiltrated the Klan in the 1940s in order to expose its shadowy secrets," they write on their Web site, freakonomics.com. "... As it turns out, however, Stetson Kennedy's own history is pretty shadowy."
They go on to say that their column is based on an examination of a few thousand pages of documents in various archives. These included Kennedy's personal correspondence, draft articles, memos and unpublished interviews.
The primary repository of Kennedy's papers, which he sold in 1952, is the Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture, a branch of New York City's public library system in Harlem.
There, on four reels of microfilm, are photocopies of the documents Kennedy was compiling in the 1940s as he researched and investigated various reactionary hate groups, among them the Ku Klux Klan and the Columbians, a neo-Nazi group that came to brief prominence in Atlanta in 1946-47.
The Times-Union spent last week examining the microfilmed Stetson Kennedy Collection at the Schomberg Center and came to the following conclusions:
As Dubner and Leavitt contend, The Klan Unmasked is not a straightforward work of nonfiction. Although all of the events described in the narrative are supported by documents in the collection, a few have been embellished and quite a few have been given a slightly different context. A number of incidents described firsthand by Kennedy in the book were actually witnessed by someone else or came from third-party accounts.
For his part, Kennedy admits that he used not only his own experiences but also others' in The Klan Unmasked, intermingling them in a single narrative to make his story more compelling. He says he has always been open about this fact -- others might disagree on this point -- but that he regrets he didn't write an introduction for the 1990 edition that would have made his method clearer.
Although Kennedy doesn't apologize for the way it's written, "I wish to God I'd gone on and elaborated [in 1990]," he said.
As for why he wrote it the way he wrote it, he said his main goal was to get it published and read.
"I wanted to show what was happening at the time," he said. "Who gives a damn how it's written? It is the one and only document of the working Klan ... Everything that the Klan does in that book, they did in life. The book is a document of our times."
Some of the most dramatic incidents in The Klan Unmasked, such as the murder of a black cab driver by a Klansman, were not personally witnessed by Kennedy.
"Randall jammed on the brakes, but there was a sickening thud and the car passed over the Negro's body," Kennedy wrote. "I turned away sick. Without looking, I knew he was dead ...
"I felt completely frustrated. I had seen a murder committed, and yet there was no one to whom I could turn ... For the first time in my life, I had a real insight into how it must feel to be a Negro in a part of the country where there is no authority to whom one can appeal for justice."
Kennedy definitely went undercover and risked his life in 1946. There is ample documentation, including newspaper clippings, that he helped infiltrate the Columbians in 1946 and was a witness at their trial.
Kennedy omitted from his book that he was one of three people who infiltrated the Columbians and then testified against them. He leaves the impression that he was the only one.
Kennedy probably attended some Klan meetings undercover. The column in The New York Times Magazine supports this by quoting from an interview by historian Ben Green with former Georgia Assistant Attorney General Dan Duke, now deceased. Although Duke is quoted to downplay the significance of Kennedy's contributions, the authors include his statement that Kennedy "got inside some meetings." Their implication that Kennedy had little interaction with Duke is contradicted by a number of documents, including newspaper clippings and a letter from Duke to Kennedy addressed "Dear Stet."
Peggy Bulger, who wrote a doctoral dissertation about Kennedy published in 1992, said Duke laughed about the way The Klan Unmasked was written. But he added that Kennedy "didn't do it all, but he did plenty," she said. In a letter to Kennedy dated July 27, 1946, Georgia Gov. Ellis Arnall wrote, "You have my permission to quote me as making the following observation: 'Documentary evidence uncovered by Stetson Kennedy has facilitated Georgia's prosecution of the Ku Klux Klan.'"
Kennedy originally thought The Klan Unmasked would be published in 1948. But the political climate had changed and he couldn't find a publisher. He now says he rewrote it as a thriller in an effort to get a publisher. But it would not be published until 1954 in France. The only American publication was by a tiny press that brought it as I Rode with the Ku Klux Klan.
Kennedy said he made almost nothing off the book in the 1950s.
"My royalties counted in the hundreds," he said. "I don't recommend Klan-busting as a career."
As Bulger, now director of The American Folklife Center in the Library of Congress, notes, the book that was finally published was unlike anything else Kennedy has ever written. The style was pure Mickey Spillane, complete with hard-boiled prose and a tough, fearless protagonist who, when he isn't romancing some lovely lady, is risking his life to take down sleazy, vicious organizations. The two main differences are that Spillane hero Mike Hammer wades into every fight and his fights are with Commies. Kennedy's hero, himself, carries a gun but avoids violence at every opportunity and works to undermine Nazis and their ilk.
"I don't think he ever thought the book would be considered a lie," Bulger said. "He just made himself into the main character so it would tell a better story."
His legend grows
By 1954, Kennedy had been through a lot. He had discovered he was no longer publishable. He had moved back to Florida to live in an abandoned bus by a man-made lake on family property in St. Johns County. He had run a quixotic, write-in race for governor, and his pal Woody Guthrie, who liked to sleep in a hammock next to Kennedy's bus, wrote him campaign songs. He moved to Europe in 1952 and stayed until 1960, getting one more book, Jim Crow Guide, published in France. When he came back to America, he stopped writing books. He worked for more than two decades for Jacksonville's anti-poverty agency.
By 1990, he was retired and largely forgotten. But the reissue of The Klan Unmasked in 1990 made his reputation anew and caused his legend to grow. Bulger, who began interviewing Kennedy in the late 1980s, said Kennedy was open with her about his method in writing The Klan Unmasked. His goal, he told her, was to expose the Klan to ridicule and he chose an approach that would help sell the book and at the same time protect the identity of his undercover man.
And Kennedy did make a gesture toward setting the record straight. He included a brief note opposite the table of contents thanking various people including "my fellow anti-Klan agent 'Bob,' who has risked his life many times ..."
Was that gesture enough? Probably not, Bulger said. "Maybe he should have been much more up-front," she admitted.
But she insisted that what Kennedy did is not the same as what James Frey, the author of the best-seller A Million Little Pieces, did. Frey's account of his drug addiction has been widely discredited, and his biggest supporter, Oprah Winfrey, recently told Frey during an appearance on her show that she felt duped. Frey, Bulger said, was trying to make money. Kennedy, she said, was trying to make the Klan seem both dangerous and ridiculous. "What he did was use folklore to expose the Klan," she said.
Author Studs Turkel, outraged at the New York Times Magazine take, wrote to it: "With half a dozen Stetson Kennedys, we can transform our society into one of truth, grace and beauty. ... The thing is, Stetson did what he set out to do ... He did get help. He should have been much more up-front. But he certainly doesn't deserve this treatment."
Kennedy said he has been hurt by the NYT Magazine article -- not by its revelations about the book, which he insists is old news, but by its implication that he hadn't really infiltrated and exposed the Klan in the 1940s. "I'm the one who was breaking it in the press," he said. "I'm the one who was testifying in court. I'm the one who had a price on his head." Still, he said, the support of people like Bulger and Turkel has reminded him of how much has changed over his long life. Once, he remembered, "I was anathema."
Now he has been widely honored. And in honoring him, he said, what is important is that people are paying tribute to the things he stood for.
"You can't embrace me without embracing my cause, fair play and opportunity for everybody."
Sometimes in The Klan Unmasked, Stetson Kennedy takes events that actually occurred and apparently embellishes them for dramatic purpose.
From The Klan Unmasked, an account of the events of Feb. 15, 1947, when Kennedy attended a trial of three officials of Columbians Inc., partly as a potential witness but also as a reporter for the newspaper PM, covering the trial:
I sauntered casually into the Columbian witness-room and sat down. The room was packed with brown-shirted Columbian stalwarts and their Kluxer and wool-hat sympathizers.
For a moment they were too flabbergasted to say anything.
"Of all the goddamn nerve!" Jett finally exploded, and the whole pack let out a howl and surrounded me. The deputy who was supposed to hold them in line just leaned against the wall and chewed on his toothpick.
... They asked all the usual baiting questions, and soon got to the $64 one. "Would you let your daughter marry a nigger?" "When any two people decide they want to get married, I don't think it's anybody's business what colour they are." "Great Gawd!" exclaimed Jett, turning to the deputy. "Did you hear that?" "People been lynched in Georgia for saying less," the deputy agreed. ... "I think anybody who associates with niggers is trash!" a burly new Columbian I had never met hissed. "I think anybody who associates with Columbians is trash!" I countered.
At that, the big boy reached into his pocket and jerked out a large switch-blade knife. Out of the corner of my eye I could see the deputy was not going to budge. The Columbian let out a roar and lunged at me, the knife aimed at my throat. Just as I was about to duck, he let out a scream of anguish, dropped the knife, and bent over and grabbed his ankle. Ira Jett had given him a powerful kick in his shins.
"Goddam you, Perkins or Kennedy or whatever your name is!" Jett yelled. "I hate your guts as much as anybody! But I don't want our boys to get in trouble by cutting your throat on the fifth floor of the court-house."
From a story published Feb. 16, 1947, in the newspaper PM of the same account that never mentions the attempt on his life:
In a courtroom corridor, Kennedy found himself surrounded by a group of Columbians he knew from the days when he was a member, under an assumed name, gathering material for his book.
"Would you let your daughter marry a Negro?" demanded one.
"I regard it as an individual right for anyone to marry whoever he pleases," Kennedy replied.
"Would you entertain a nigger in your home?"
"I would; I choose my friends on the basis of character and not complexion."
"People have been lynched in Georgia for saying less than that," muttered one of the Columbians.
Response to “Freakonomics: Hoodwinked?”
by Stetson Kennedy
New York Times Magazine 1/8/06
Stephen Dubner and Steve Levitt had it right the first time when they wrote in their book Freakonomics, after citing Klan historian Wynn Craig Wade’s assessment, that my initiation/exposure of the Klan was the single most important factor in curbing its postwar growth:
“This did not happen because Kennedy was courageous or resolute or unflappable, even though he was all of these.”
But, now, a year later, in their turnabout article “Freakonomics: Hoodwinked?” in the New York Times Sunday Magazine of January 8, they have got it all wrong. They have been hoodwinked, all right, but not by me.
The sub-title of their book reads, “The Hidden Story Behind Just About Everything.” Comes now Dubner (he does the writing) with what purports to be a hidden story behind his original hidden story. So, out of my concern for public opinion (not Dubner’s), let me tell you the hidden story behind the hidden story behind the hidden story.
Dubner himself has told me that he received calls from “a couple of Florida historians” (which is what they call themselves), urging him to dig deeper into my background. Specifically, they steered him to the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, the repository for the inside Klan reports I placed with it in 1950. Some of those reports were written by me, and some by my fellow agent (and union brother) inside the Klan. Memory tells me that I typed them all, and signed them “John Brown” for security reasons. (Please note, if anyone has anything to hide, they don’t place it in a public library.)
One of the two instigators was Ben Green, with whom I was originally scheduled to split the by-line on a book detailing the Harry T. Moore assassinations. The hidden reason why we split company instead is that I announced, at a Moore memorial press conference: “Law enforcement, at every level – local, county, state and national – was involved in every phase of the assassination – the decision, planning, execution, and cover-up.”
Ben Green, on the other hand, insisted upon not only whitewashing the lawmen, but also praising them to the skies. And that is what this is really all about.
When Dubner came to town to do a follow-up interview, he led me to believe that it was for the purpose of updating his chapter about me for a paperback edition. When I later found that his real intentions were to write some sort of “expose,” I promptly dispatched more than 30 documents attesting to the extent of my infiltrations (enough to write three more books).
When I first infiltrated the KKK, WWII was still going on, and the Klan cells were operating under a variety of front names. In the beginning, I was strictly on my own, but eventually the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith (ADL), impressed by all the counter-terrorist evidence I turned over to them, hired me as their southeastern director of fact-finding, based in Atlanta.
As a started, the ADL provided me with a new I.D. – “John S. Perkins, Encyclopedia Salesman.” Then came a “Pistol Toter’s Permit” courtesy of Georgia’s good Gov. Ellis Arnal. Thereafter, whenever the Klan burnt a cross or lynched a black, I packed my robe and shoulder-holster, and flew into the hornets’ nest.
From time to time, prosecutor Dan Duke paid me, as a secret agent of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, for evidence tendered him. And, as my FBI file confirms, I also turned in information to its offices in Miami, Jacksonville, Atlanta, and Washington, DC.
Then there came a time when Duke decided he had enough evidence to bring some of the Klan/Columbian dynamiters to trial. Even though it would mean blowing my cover, he asked me to testify in Fulton Superior Court.
When the Clerk called for Stetson Kennedy, the Klan-packed courtroom rose to its feet and roared, “It’s Perkins!” Then, when I returned to the witness room, Klansman Ira Jett pulled a switchblade knife and lunged for my throat, only to be stopped by an old Klansman who said, “Cut his throat, okay; but not on the 5th floor of the courthouse.”
After the trial was held and the terrorists jailed, I headed North. Grand Dragon Samuel Green declared, “Kennedy’d damn well better not come back!” He went on to issue a $1000 per pound reward for my posterior, FOB Atlanta!
Following the trial, the ADL held a “coming out” press conference for Kennedy/Perkins in their New York headquarters, booked me for similar “unveilings” on Eric Sevareid’s television show and other media, and sent me on a lecture tour of B’nai B’rith lodges and major universities across the country. Which is to say that Dubner, in trying to cast a shadow on my bona fides, is doing the same to the ADL.
One person who is still alive, who knows all about my undercover work for the ADL, is its lifelong general counsel, Arnold Forster, who has written, “Stetson did not just infiltrate one Klan, he infiltrated many.” Dubner says he couldn’t find Forster. I say he didn’t want to.
When I got around to writing my book, The Klan Unmasked, stated on Page One that I had a fellow agent. He begged me to leave him out of the book, and take all of the action upon my shoulders, for his safety and that of his family. He also made me promise never to reveal his name, even to the FBI.
I spelled all this out to Peggy Bulger now director of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress) for the dissertation she wrote about me 20 years ago.
Dubner’s “hidden story” is actually old hat. Prosecutor Dan Duke said it all: “Stetson may not have done it all, but he did plenty.”
What with all the evil going on in the world, and me going on 90, I am not at all inclined to haggle with anyone about which agent covered which Klan meeting 50 years ago.