Stetson Kennedy: A celebration of a legend

By Michael Isam |
Photo by Michael Isam

The word “legend” comes to mind when the name Stetson Kennedy enters into a conversation. A legend can be a star, a celebrity or even a fable. To the 100-plus who attended the celebration of Kennedy’s life in early October, he was certainly either or both of the former. To those who walked and lived in the shadows and hid beneath sheets, robes and hoods, if he had only been the latter, they would have breathed easier.

The writer and Civil Rights activist who called the First Coast home died in August at 94.

It was a day of music and literary legends. Living-legend Willie Green, who calls Kennedy his “white brother,” led off the celebration. And the day reclled the memories of music legends like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger; famed anthropologist and author Zora Neale Hurston who worked with Kennedy taping the voices of old Florida; the incomparable Studs Terkel, and last, but never least, the famed author, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. Rawlings was the teacher behind Kennedy, the author. He took her creative writing course at FSU to further his love of writing.

That choice led to his job as the Cracker dialect expert when Rawlings’ book, “The Yearling”, became a movie. It also led to Erskine Caldwell, a celebrated author of novels about southern life, providing the editing for Kennedy’s novel, “Palmetto Country”.

It was easy to go with the flow of the legend. It was almost impossible to remain on the sidelines and witness the historical markers that coincided with, and sometimes created by, his life.

“Stetson was in love with democracy,” said Sandra Parks, his seventh and last wife. “He was in love with democracy even more than his wives. I was never jealous of it.” To each speaker and musician, that summed up Stetson Kennedy. Even the name of his home is witness to it. Beluthahatchee, loosely translated according to Woody Guthrie, means “a spot of freedom.”

Loren Kennedy, Stetson’s son, had the most poignant time of the day. As he spoke about his father as a person, the audience became still. There was no gadding about, no side whispers, no sound but Loren’s voice. Suddenly everyone and everything froze. For a brief instant, the sharp, shrill piercing cry of a hawk took center stage. As one, the audience glanced about and one word was uttered, “Stetson.”

No section of the human condition escaped his notice. Race, creed, and religion were always on his radar and he seldom missed anything. When told of incidents involving young black men killed in hit and runs, Kennedy’s comment was “Well, it sounds like a new form of lynching to me.”

According to the information about his book “The Klan Unmasked,” Kennedy, and cohort James Brown, infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan. While protecting people from torture and death, they provided information to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and even the radio show version of “Superman.” On the show, the broadcast of the Klan secret code words made them outdated before use. This action, combined with actions by others of like mind, led to the Klan’s loss of national charter.

Kennedy has the last word, as always, and, as always, it stays not only in the mind, but also in the heart: “I am inclined to pin whatever hope there may be upon the children, somehow mobilized-despite the lullabies — to prevail upon us grownups to stop gobbling their future.” “The struggle for human rights, social justice and peace has no beginning and no end. So, my final words are: ‘On guard! And carry on!'”

Jill Bowen scatters the ashes of Stetson Kennedy at a memorial for the author in October.

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