by Charlie Patton, Florida Times-Union: January 31, 2006
Human memory is fallible; facts can be elusive.
Sitting on a stage Monday night with Stetson Kennedy, talking about his father's famous friendship with Kennedy, Arlo Guthrie remembered hearing his father talk about Kennedy after coming home from an "adventure" when Arlo was about 9 or 10 years old.
But Guthrie was born in 1947. From 1952 to 1960, Kennedy was living in Europe.
The story couldn't have happened the way Guthrie described it, though that minor detail seemed totally insignificant on a night given over to celebrating the long, eventful accomplished life of Kennedy.
Kennedy, 89, has made his mark as a folklorist, an author and a social activist.
In recent years, honors have begun to come the way of a man who was once considered a dangerous radical by most of polite society. Monday night's "An Evening with Stetson Kennedy" was designed to honor Kennedy while raising money for the Stetson Kennedy Foundation. It drew a turnout of several hundred to the Fine Arts Center at the University of North Florida.
The audience heard tributes both live and taped and watched Kennedy interviewed on stage by Peggy Bulger, director of the Library of Congress's American Folklife Center. They heard Bob Edwards, formerly with NPR, now with XM Satellite Radio, interview both Kennedy and Guthrie. They heard Guthrie perform.
What they didn't hear was any mention of a recent controversy surrounding old events in Kennedy's life.
A recent column in The New York Times Magazine raised questions about whether Kennedy's "The Klan Unmasked," first published in the mid-'50s and then republished by the University of Florida Presses in 1990, is actually true. In the book Kennedy writes about infiltrating both the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazi hate group called the Columbians in 1946-47.
A Times-Union examination of Kennedy's archives at the Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York found that Kennedy had worked, both undercover and as a journalist to expose the Klan and the Columbians. But it also found that many of the events in "The Klan Unmasked" either happened to another undercover agent, were presented in a false context or were embellished in the book. Kennedy has admitted he attributed the experiences of another undercover man to the character Stetson Kennedy in writing the book.
But all that went unmentioned Monday. In interviewing Kennedy about his Klan-busting days, Bulger never asked and Kennedy never volunteered any discussion of the controversy.
Still, they seemed a little uncomfortable with the whole subject.
Kennedy was far more relaxed and engagingly witty when talking about his days as a folklorist, helping compile a guide to Florida for the federal government, then using the juicy material he couldn't get into that book for Palmetto Country, which preeminent folklorist Alan Lomax once called the best book ever written about Florida. Kennedy told a story about a slave who is ironing some clothes in the dying days of the Civil War when he hears the sound of battle and realizes emancipation is near. She stops ironing and is asked if she isn't going to finish.
Kennedy grinned and quoted her: "I'm going to practice my freedom by sitting down wherever I feel like it."
"Only a slave would understand that true freedom is the right to sit down when you want," he added.
After a lifetime of fighting for equal rights, Kennedy said America has made "appreciable progress."
But not enough progress, he added.
"We used to have segregated racism," he said. "Now we have desegregated racism.