William Stetson Kennedy, a pioneering figure of the civil rights movement for his work on exposing the Ku Klux Klan, died on Saturday in Florida at the age of 94.
Kennedy was many things in his lifetime, including a folklorist, labor activist, environmentalist, and even an adviser to the “Superman” radio show in the 1940s. But he will be best remembered for how he infiltrated the KKK and exposed what he referred to as “homegrown racial terrorists.”
Denied entry into the armed forces during World War II due to a back injury, Kennedy used the name of a deceased uncle who had been a KKK member and gained entry into the hate group to provide information to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, the Anti-Defamation League and Drew Pearson, a columnist for The Washington Post.
“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,” Kennedy said. “At least I could see if I could do something about the racist terrorists in our backyard.”
With the information he collected while an undercover Klan member, Kennedy enabled the Internal Revenue Service to sue the Klan for $685,000 in back taxes. He also helped the State of Georgia to revoke the Klan’s national corporate charter in 1947.
In 1946, he published Southern Exposure, a book about Southern hate groups. He also tried to publish The Klan Unmasked in 1948, but anti-communist hysteria at the time made rights activists like Kennedy suspect, The Florida Times-Union wrote. The book would not see publication until 1954 – in France. It would eventually be published in the United States under the title, I Rode with the Klan.
Kennedy’s Klan experience was also used for the “Superman” radio show, where he worked as an adviser on a series of episodes titled, “Clan of the Fiery Cross,” where Superman battled the KKK.
Before becoming an anti-KKK activist, Kennedy worked as a folklorist, traveling the Florida Keys and collecting the stories of “orange pickers, spongers, cigar makers, mullet fishermen, gandy dancers and turpentine gatherers,” The St. Petersburg Times said, calling him the “Homer of Florida.” The stories were published in a 1942 book titled, Palmetto Country, which was republished in 1988, giving him a certain amount of fame late in life.
Aside from being a civil rights activist well before the tumultuous 1960s and a published author, Kennedy also was friends with such varied personalities as Jean-Paul Sartre, who published some of his works in France, and Woody Guthrie, who wrote a song about him. He also had a reputation as a ladies’ man, having been married either five or seven times, depending on whom you ask.
"He knew everybody," said Tina Bucuvalas, the former director of Florida Folklife, who now leads a similar program in Tarpon Springs, to the St. Pete Times. "What a life!'