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Southern Labor Archives: Stetson Kennedy: A guide to his papers: Stetson Kennedy

Biography and Description of the Papers


Stetson Kennedy was born in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1916. He attended the University of Florida, the New School for Social Research, and the University of Paris.

Kennedy's career as an author began in the 1930s when he worked as both a writer and an editor on the Federal Writers Project guide to Florida. The affiliation made there led to an invitation to write the Florida volume in the American Folkways series, edited by Erskine Caldwell. This volume, Palmetto Country (1942), established Kennedy's reputation as an authority on the traditions and culture of his home state.

His next book, Southern Exposure (1946), was an expose of the social and political inequities of the South in the mid-20th century. Later, he continued his crusade with I Rode With the Ku Klux Klan (1954) and Jim Crow Guide to the U.S.A. (1959). (Kennedy had infiltrated the Klan as an agent of the state of Georgia.)

As an independent candidate for the U.S. Senate from Florida in 1950, Kennedy ran on a "Total Equality" ticket, and finished last. From 1952 through 1960, Kennedy lived and traveled in Europe, Asia, and Africa. His interest in communism led him behind the Iron Curtain, where he lived and worked for three years, primarily in Hungary. He emerged, disenchanted, as a refugee in 1956.

Upon his return to the United States, Kennedy remained active in the civil rights and peace movements as a writer and lecturer. At various times he has contributed articles to the New York Times, the New York Post, Saturday Review, Nation, New Republic, and other periodicals in the U.S. and abroad. The author of the column "Inside Out" syndicated by the Federated Press from 1937 to 1950, Kennedy also wrote a column "Up Front Down South," for the Pittsburgh Courier in the 1960s.

Kennedy joined the federal anti-poverty program in Miami in 1965, and later became the assistant director.

DESCRIPTION OF THE PAPERS | finding aid for the Stetson Kennedy Papers

Anyone interested in primary source material on the pioneering struggles to introduce unionization, civil rights, and socio-economic-political progress to the South during the Great Depression, WW II, and the decade which followed will find this extensive collection highly rewarding.

Born in 1916 in Jacksonville, Florida, Stetson Kennedy was engaged in those struggles--fulltime and overtime--as writer, activist, and undercover agent. He also served as self-appointed archivist, taking it upon himself to collect and preserve, over a half century, documents reflecting the contest between progress and reaction in the South.

Kennedy's own prescription for progress called for working people to arm themselves with a ballot in one hand, and a union card in the other. His Papers reflect such labor-related experiences as organizing the unemployed into the Workers Alliance during the Depression, serving as southeastern editorial director of the CIO's PAC during "Operation Dixie," authoring a column "Inside Out" that was widely syndicated by labor papers, testimony as an expert witness before the Senate Labor Committee on union-busting by the KKK and on peonage in the U.S. before the U.N. Committee on Forced Labor in Geneva, as well as membership in the American Newspaper Guild.

Since racism long served as a major means of keeping Southern labor unorganized and cheap, and social justice and political democracy in the region at a low ebb, much of Kennedy's lifework has been focused upon segregation and discrimination, and this too is reflected in his Papers. In this he worked closely with such organizations as the Southern Conference for Human Welfare, NAACP, Anti-Defamation League, Southern Regional Council, and Highlander Folk School. First on his own initiative, and later as an undercover agent for the Georgia Department of Law under Gov. Ellis Arnall, he joined the KKK and a score of other "home-grown, Southern-style" terrorist groups, and the evidence he gathered was instrumental in curbing their growth and putting some of their leaders behind bars. Much of this evidence is to be found among his Papers, and still other documents, placed earlier with the Schomburg Collection of the N.Y. Public Library, are available on microfilm.

The collection also contains materials related to a variety of national and international causes to which Kennedy was committed as a sponsor and activist. These include an Intercollegiate Peace Council he organized prior to WW II (the first interracial organization of college students in the South), picketing of scrap iron shipments to Japan, and fund-raising for medical aid for the Spanish Republican Army.

Out of Kennedy's investigations and activism have come a number of books, including his Palmetto Country, Southern Exposure, I Rode with the Ku Klux Klan, and Jim Crow Guide to the USA. Raw materials and early drafts of these works are to be found in his Papers, as are his "Up Front Down South" columns for the black press, and investigative reportage for the newspaper PM, The New Republic, The Nation, and other journals. Included too is a documentary record of his 1950 campaign as an independent write-in candidate for the U.S. Senate from Florida, on a platform of "total equality" (he was arrested at the polls). Also of special interest is correspondence from one of Kennedy's close friends, that "bard of the working man," Woody Guthrie.

These Papers consist of a wide variety of materials, including manuscripts, notes, inside reports of terrorist meetings, flyers, posters, brochures, correspondence, hate sheets, photographs, news clippings, and scrapbooks.

In range of subject matter they constitute a veritable encyclopaedia of the problems which beset the South during that transitional epoch.

On the labor front, there were regional and racial wage differentials to contend with, discriminatory freight rates which kept industry out, company towns, the KKK telling the CIO "we will fight horror with horror," and progress being measured in terms of "At first they used to kill you for trying to organize a union; now they just knock all your teeth out."

At the outset, the bastions of white supremacy were virtually unchallenged. No black could vote in a Democratic primary in the South, and very few dared vote at all. There was not one black fireman or policeman below the Mason-Dixon Line, much less any black office-holders. Blacks seldom sat on juries, even Federal ones. Jim Crow reigned over all, including interracial etiquette.

In the countryside, poor whites as well as blacks were caught in the toils of illiteracy, peonage, the commissary, share-cropping, tenant farming, and the cash-crop ("let `em eat cotton") system. Rural homes generally lacked screens, lights, running water, and pellagra, hookworm, dengue and malaria were rampant.

Lynchings and massacres took place periodically; the penal system was characterized by the chaingang, sweatbox, and convict lease system; and the polltax and black disfranchisement enabled Southern bourbons to dominate both houses of Congress and pollute the Congressional Record with their racist perorations.

The Stetson Kennedy Papers chronicle the early struggles to change all that, and serve to point up what has and has not yet been accomplished.

Special Collections and Archives

Special Collections and Archives
Southern Labor Archives

Phone: (404) 413-2880
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Atlanta, Georgia 30303-3202

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