In 1937, Stetson Kennedy dropped out of the University of Florida at the age of 21 to join the Federal Writer’s Project, part of the Depression era Works Progress Administration. Kennedy had grown up driving around the Florida countryside collecting debts for his father's furniture store, and as he traveled, he also collected the stories of the people he visited.
The Federal Writer’s Project would pay him to do exactly the same thing, but it provided him with an early portable sound recorder, about the size of a coffee table. Kennedy lugged it everywhere, talking to just about anyone who would talk to him.
What he did during the Depression set the course for the rest of his long, eventful life. Historian, author, activist, muckraker and candidate for the U.S. Senate, Kennedy died on Saturday at the age of 94.
Peggy Bulger is the director of the American Folklife division of the Library of Congress. She wrote her Ph.D. dissertation on Kennedy and interviewed him hundreds of times. Peggy, welcome to the show.
Oh, thank you.
What kind of material was he collecting?
Well, of course, for the folklore unit he collected everything from folk music, folk dance, talked to people who were craftsmen. But he also was doing oral histories with people who, for instance, were working in the turpentine camps of North Florida.
In Cross City, Florida, one of the
largest turpentine camps in the state, we organized a recording session around a campfire at night.
[CAMPFIRE SONG/UP AND UNDER]
And after a while I began asking questions about – why don’t you leave and get out of it. And one elderly hand, as they called themselves, he said, said, the only way out is to die out, that if he tries to leave they’ll kill you.
And the minute I started asking questions like that and getting responses like that, some of the young blacks jumped up and ran off into the woods to serve as sentries.
And sure enough, a bit later on they came dashing back up and said, sing something quick, here comes the man.
[MAN SINGING/UP AND UNDER]
The Federal Writer’s Project created a treasure trove for the likes of you, folklorists, academics, and so forth. In its time it was widely considered make-work and controversial right up to the time the US entered the war and manufacturing jobs essentially displaced a big part of the New Deal.
What happened to Stetson Kennedy when the WPA went away?
So Stetson had tried to sign up for the military, like everyone else, and he had a old back injury which prevented him from serving. So, as he told me, he said, well I just decided that I would fight fascism at home.
And so, he infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in Stone Mountain, Georgia, working with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. He was using his work as a folklorist to document what they were doing.
Basically, he demonstrated how they were not a educational, charitable organization, nonprofit organization, but, in fact, they were a terrorist organization, [LAUGHS] that they were conspiring to deny people their civil rights, and so ended up getting their charter revoked as a nonprofit organization in Georgia.
And, therefore they owed something like half a million dollars in back taxes, so they went bankrupt and had to disband for awhile.
Undercover folklorist - it sounds like [LAUGHS] a joke. You know, it sounds like the premise of a Jim Carrey movie or something.
To - to what extent was he a police informant, a journalist, a citizen activist? I mean, what exactly was he when he infiltrated the Klan?
Well. Stetson’s always been kind of a maverick. I mean, it wouldn't have mattered if the Georgia Bureau of Investigation had said no, we don't want you to do that. He was gonna do it. He was going to infiltrate the Klan and he was gonna write about it.
Once I got in, it was obvious to me that I couldn't go to the police because at the very first meeting I could see the police uniforms, the blue pants sticking out beneath the Klan robes and a great many khaki trousers of the sheriff’s deputies.
So I went to the FBI and, sure enough, at the next Klan meeting the Grand Dragon Samuel Green got up and said, had a little call from the FBI last week, said – warning me that we’ve been infiltrated. So you can’t ask for better cooperation that that.
Luckily, he was working with some other people who are undercover, so that he wasn't just totally alone, because it was a very dangerous thing to be doing. He was also working with the producers of the Superman radio program and –
I just – I’m sorry, I have to interrupt you, ‘cause I just want to make this clear. His [LAUGHS], his media channel was not The New York Times. It was not The Atlanta. Constitution. It was the radio show - Superman. Uh –
Right. At the time, the radio show Superman was like a soap opera. They would have these thematic series that would be 10 to 12 shows.
And so, they had one whole series called “The Klan of the Fiery Cross, and it was basically Superman battling what was the Ku Klux Klan, but they never used the word “Ku Klux Klan."
Drew Pearson was a syndicated investigative reporter, a muckraker, the predecessor to Jack Anderson in the column called “Washington Merry-Go-Round.” And he was really the one who plucked Stetson Kennedy from obscurity to the prominence of being a national figure himself.
Pearson has a weekly radio broadcast coast to coast, so I made a deal with Pearson to broadcast the minutes of the Klan’s last meeting. Every Sunday afternoon we’d broadcast the names of the judges and policeman and businessman, pol – politicians, all sorts of people who had attended the last meeting of the Klan.
So the minute we did that, they never showed up again. And recruitment dropped. And best of all, the violence came to a stop, all because of infiltration. So it was very effective while it lasted.
At one point Kennedy ran for the US Senate in Florida, lost, but through no fault of Woody Guthrie, the iconic American folk singer who wrote his campaign song for him.
He was great friends with Woody Guthrie who had read Palmetto Country and had written to Stetson and - praising him. And Stetson had invited him to come live on his land, if he wanted to, and Woody took him up on it.
And while he was there he wrote 88 songs, and about five of those songs were campaign songs for Stetson’s run for the Senate, including one that's just simply called Stetson Kennedy, which subsequently was recorded by Billy Bragg & Wilco.
BILLY BRAGG & WILCO SINGING:
Stetson Kennedy, writing his name in Stetson Kennedy, writing his name in…
[SONG UP AND UNDER]
You know, when you think of his life's trajectory, he continued to be an activist for many different causes that were the big causes of the 20th century. And today, we’re - I wonder who will be that activist for the 21st century.
Peggy, thank you so much.
Oh, you’re welcome.
Peggy Bulger is the director of the American Folklife division of the Library of Congress. Some of the recordings you heard were produced by Barrett Golding for a 2002 documentary that aired on All Things Considered.
That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Jamie York, Nazanin Rafsanjani, Alex Goldman, P.J. Vogt and Sarah Abdurrahman, with more help from Emily Chin and Joe Rosenberg, who are leaving us this week. Guys, thanks very much for your help. And the show was edited – by Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was Rob Grannis.
This week we say goodbye to Nazanin Rafsanjani, referred to variously as Naz, Naaz and occasionally Marzipan. As a person, she’s exceptionally kind and patient. As a producer, she’s uncanny.
She’ll come up with an interview idea, say with some woman doing a blog about Yemen that doesn’t seem to have all that much to recommend it, and she’ll know, somehow she’ll just know that this particular blogger, that particular interview will strike at our common humanity or mark a passage in our national consciousness, or otherwise achieve something real.
It seems weirdly hyperbolic, but I’m serious. A Nazanin interview was always marked by exceptional, memorable heart.
Naz has been with us for five years, big ones marked by marriage, a baby, the strengthening of her professional voice and an intention to use it.
Here’s the end of a piece she did about a kid who staged a funeral for his old name, to outrun his youthful online indiscretions:
Back at the funeral, a friend is delivering the eulogy for Peter’s name.
May he lead a timid, uneventful life, [LAUGHTER] marked, marked by no accomplishments that anyone would ever care to document online.
[REMARKS UP AND UNDER]
A couple of years ago, Google CEO Eric Schmidt joked that everyone growing up now should change their name when they're 21. But perhaps there will come a point when we'll all have something awkward or even potentially damaging about us on the Web, and if it’s public for everyone, then maybe we're protected by the crowd, all of us living out our most embarrassing moments, one Google search at a time, in front of one another.
Naz is ready to go public. She’s starting a podcast on parenting. It’s going to be marzi-fantastic!
We love you, Naz.
On the Media is produced by WNYC and distributed by NPR. I’m Brooke Gladstone.