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Author and famed folklorist Stetson Kennedy, who exposed the secrets of the Ku Klux Klan decades ago, died on Saturday at Baptist Medical Center South in Jacksonville, Florida. According to his website which announced the passing, he was with his wife and stepdaughter. Kennedy was 94.
His 1954 book “I Rode With the Ku Klux Klan” was his best-known work, later re-released as “The Klan Unmasked” in 1990. Kennedy was very involved in human rights activism in the late 1930s against segregation laws and decided in the early 1940s to infiltrate both the KKK and the Columbians, an Atlanta-based neo-Nazi organization.
He was crusading against what he described as “homegrown racial terrorists,” according to the LA Times’ report. By posing as an encyclopedia salesman, Kennedy gathered information which he shared with journalists and law enforcement officials. After stepping forward to testify at the 1947 trial of Homer Loomis and Emory Burke, the leaders of the Columbians, his undercover days were over.
Many have applauded Kennedy’s work as a monumental catalyst for the demystification of right extremists and halting the growth of the Ku Klux Klan. He enabled the International Revenue Service to request an outstanding $685,000 in taxes from the Klan in 1944 and helped draft the brief used to revoke their national corporate charter in 1947.
His most populist achievement was to describe the Klan’s rituals – something that Peggy Bulger, director of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress described as the strongest blow to the Klan. “Exposing their folklore – all their secret handshakes, passwords and how silly they were dressing up in white sheets,” was extremely relevant, she told the Associated Press in 2007.
In later years, critics have suggested that Kennedy misrepresented his contribution and some of the information that he was delivering. According to LA Times, the co-authors Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt of the best-selling book Freakonomics contended that a number of events described in “The Klan Unmasked” were embellished or based on secondhand information.
He was also accused of failing to credit other undercover agents who had placed themselves in considerably more risque situations than himself. Kennedy has later stated that he never hid the fact that his narrative was a bit colorful but he regrets not having stated this fact more clearly at the beginning of his book.
Stetson Kennedy is survived by his seventh wife, Sandra Parks, and the memorial celebration will be held at his homestead, Beluthahatchee Park.
Image Courtesy of Pally