Stetson Kennedy

Stetson Kennedy

Stetson Kennedy, the American investigative journalist who died on August 27 aged 94, became the scourge of the Ku Klux Klan after he infiltrated the white supremacist group and exposed its secret rituals to ridicule.

The Telegraph, UK/September 19, 2011

The Klan's origins lay in Tennessee and dated from shortly after the American Civil War, but by early in the 20th century it had all but disappeared. Then, on Thanksgiving night 1915, it was relaunched in an infamous mountaintop cross-burning ceremony. Over the next 50 years, Klansmen staged equally sinister rallies intended to recruit new members and terrorise black people and the sect's new targets — Jews, Roman Catholics and Communists.

In the mid-1940s, masquerading as an encyclopedia salesman called John Perkins (a name inspired by his uncle Brady Perkins, who had been the Grand Titan of the Florida Realm of the Klan), Kennedy infiltrated the sect's high command in Atlanta, Georgia.

Using evidence he retrieved from the waste paper basket of the Grand Dragon — another leading Klan official — the Internal Revenue Service was able to press for the collection of an outstanding $685,000 in tax owed by the Klan.

Then Kennedy took his campaign a stage further. While working as a consultant to the Superman radio show, he provided the producers with information on the Klan's rituals and secret code words. When he learned of the Klan's plans, Kennedy would thwart them by ensuring that they were broadcast.

Despite the best effort of the Klan to discover the identity of their mole, Kennedy managed to escape detection until 1951, when he blew his cover by testifying against the Klan before a federal grand jury investigating bomb attacks aimed at black, Catholic and Jewish centres in Florida, one of which had killed a leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People. Related Links

Once unmasked, Kennedy wrote a book, I Rode With The Ku Klux Klan (1954), in the style of a Mickey Spillane novel. Kennedy's friend Peggy Bulger, director of the American Folklife Centre at the Library of Congress, declared that Kennedy's story was a major blow to the racist organisation, particularly through its effective exposing of the Klan's "folklore — all their secret handshakes, passwords and how silly they were".

William Stetson Kennedy was born on October 5 1916 in Jacksonville, Florida, and was related on his mother's side to John Stetson, the hat manufacturer. He was exposed at an early age to segregation and the unequal treatment of minorities.

In 1937 he left the University of Florida to take a job with the government's Work Projects Administration. He travelled the state gathering folklore, oral histories and data for the agency's guidebook series before becoming director of the Anti-Nazi League of New York.

After the publication of his first book, Palmetto Country (1942), Kennedy turned his energies to social activism. He launched his crusade against the Klan during the Second World War after he was ruled unfit for military service because of a back injury. "All my friends were in service, and they were being shot at in a big way. They were fighting racism whether they knew it or not," he said. "At least I could see if I could do something about the racist terrorists in our backyard."

In 1952, after the Klan posted a bounty on his head, Kennedy unsuccessfully ran for governor of Florida. He then travelled to Europe to testify in Geneva before a United Nations commission about forced labour in the American South. When Kennedy wrote a mock tourist handbook about the so-called Jim Crow laws that governed every aspect of racial segregation in the South, no American publisher would handle it. The Jim Crow Guide was eventually published in France in 1956 by Jean-Paul Sartre.

Kennedy spent the rest of his professional life working for community development agencies in the Jacksonville area of Florida. But late in life he faced charges that some of his Klan writings had been fabricated or exaggerated. Kennedy duly acknowledged that some of the material in I Rode With the Ku Klux Klan had come from another Klan infiltrator who had not wanted his name used, which seemed reasonable as, even after turning 90, Kennedy continued to receive threats from angry Klan members.

Kennedy said he wove his and the other man's experiences into a narrative to make them more compelling. Moreover, he had admitted as much to Peggy Bulger 20 years before. "It was hardly a cover-up," Kennedy said. "I've been doing this for too many decades to owe anybody much of an apology."

Stetson Kennedy was married seven times, lastly, in 2006, to Sandra Parks, an author and owner of a bookshop at St Augustine, Florida.

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