By Susan D. Brandenburg
For those who admire the works of the late Stetson Kennedy, this year marks an important milestone in perpetuating his incredible legacy. Born on Oct. 5, 1916, Kennedy’s centennial is bringing him long-overdue recognition for his lifetime accomplishments as an author, civil rights activist, environmentalist, and folklorist. October 5 has been named Stetson Kennedy Day in his hometown of Jacksonville; the Stetson Kennedy Foundation is sponsoring several celebratory events in his honor during the month of October; the Magnolia Fest at the St. Augustine Amphitheater on Oct. 15 will pay tribute to Kennedy, and other organizations are remembering him as well.
Among the most exciting accolades going out to the man who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan and wrote “The Klan Unmasked,” is the upcoming Spark Media documentary called “Stetson Kennedy … Klandestine Man.” As of Sept. 15, the documentary began crowd-funding through an Indiegogo campaign (visit www.stetsonkennedy.com/doc to support the campaign). The film, which is slated for completion by 2017-18 (once adequate funding has been raised) has two goals: 1) To acquaint new audiences with Kennedy’s dramatic life story, and 2) To inspire those audiences to continue Kennedy’s unfinished work.
It was back in 2004 when Andrea Kalin of Spark Media became inspired to focus a documentary on Kennedy, the “Klan-Buster.” At the time, Kalin was filming her documentary, “Soul of a People: Writing America’s Story,” about Roosevelt’s WPA Writer’s Project. She had heard that an old Florida author and activist named Stetson Kennedy was reputedly one of the last living writers from that 1930s project, and she was determined to find him.
When she finally found Kennedy, Kalin was enthralled. He lived in rustic cedar cottage beside a gator and turtle-filled lake off of State Road 13 in St. Johns County and had a tame white Egret named Snow who ate out of his hand. He had named his home “Beluthahatchee,” meaning a place of forgiveness, where all unpleasantness is forgotten. A dusty, diverse, colorful collection of bottles filled every window sill in the cottage — his “poor man’s stain glass” catching glints of sunlight and delighting the eye. His expansive library of books bore testimony to his wide-ranging interests and knowledge.
Kalin soon realized that, while Kennedy might be the last survivor of the WPA Writer’s Project, he was a man of many firsts.
“Stetson was a civil rights leader before the movement,” said Kalin. “He was a hippie before the Age of Aquarius, an environmentalist before the green movement and a folklorist and oral historian before the field was respected by academics.”
Kalin began filming the Stetson Kennedy documentary in 2009 and Spark Media was on hand to film his Memorial Service at Beluthahatchee in 2011. Now, in this centennial year, Spark Media is again on hand to film celebrations being held across the First Coast in his honor.
Kalin’s enthusiasm and determination for spreading the word of Stetson Kennedy’s noble goals and achievements has never wavered and, in fact, is growing in the face of our nation’s current societal turmoil.
“This has been an adventure,” she said, remembering how “Stetson was always up for an adventure.”
For instance, when she suggested visiting the Clara White Mission where Stetson and Zora Neale Hurston recorded former slaves singing spirituals, she recalled that Stetson grabbed his panama hat and was out the door.
“Even after a long day, he urged us to stay on to show us around modern slave labor sites in Florida, insisting these horrendous conditions still prevail in parts of Northern Florida,” said Kalin. “The man was persuasive, tenacious, tireless and close to 95 years old. If he were alive today, I know he’d be out there canvassing for the November election.”
Kennedy’s grandson, Sean Kennedy, is a board member of the Stetson Kennedy Foundation as well as being the foundation’s webmaster and administrator of the Indiegogo Campaign.
“My grandfather was dubbed a ‘pofolkist’ by his good friend, Woody Guthrie,” said Sean Kennedy, “and, like Guthrie, he truly was a man who cared more about his causes than he did about prospering financially. Now, this Indiegogo Campaign will make it possible to raise the funding to get his story out there, and I don’t think it’s ever been more timely.”
Citing the current spate of hate crimes and shootings across the nation, Kennedy is determined to perpetuate his grandfather’s legacy.
“We need Stetson Kennedy’s spirit, conscience and courage now, more than ever,” he said. “Getting this inspiring documentary made will help create more activists and heroes like my Stetson. I want my son, his namesake, to grow up in the America my grandfather envisioned.”
Photo courtesy Spark Media Inc.
Stetson Kennedy being filmed