Stetson Kennedy, the folklorist, journalist, and undercover investigator who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in the 1940s, has died at the age of 94. According to his New York Times obituary:
As an agent for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, Mr. Kennedy, by his own account, infiltrated the Klavern in Stone Mountain and worked as a Klavalier, or Klan strong-arm man. He leaked his findings to, among others, the Washington Post columnist Drew Pearson, the Anti-Defamation League and the producers of the radio show “Superman,” who used information about the Klan’s rituals and code words in a multi-episode story titled “Clan of the Fiery Cross.”
In a celebrated exploit, he stole financial information from a wastebasket outside the office of the Klan’s Imperial Wizard, Sam Roper, in Atlanta.
The information led the Internal Revenue Service to challenge the group’s status as a charitable organization and demand nearly $700,000 in back taxes. He helped draft the brief that Georgia used to revoke the Klan’s national corporate charter in 1947.
No doubt, Kennedy’s sense of humor helped sustain him during his long career as a self-described “dissident at large.” He founded a rival “Ku Klux Klan” so that he could sue the real Klan for using the name.
In later years, Kennedy was criticized for failing to properly credit other undercover agents in his expose of the Klan. Kennedy was part of a team of three people who infiltrated the Klan, not the lone investigator he described in his most famous book. He admitted to creating a composite character under his own name, arguing that it made a more compelling story.
Kennedy was unrepentant about that decision. His goal was to tell people about the Ku Klux Klan; he was less concerned about the mechanics of telling what he knew. As Bill James notes in his recent book, Popular Crime, non-fiction authors of that era had a lot more leeway to use undeclared fictional devices: “Book writers of the 1940s did many things that would never be tolerated for a modern writer who wished to remain respectable.” Thankfully, the standards for narrative non-fiction are more rigorous today.
Note that exposing the Klan wasn’t an achievement prudent people clamoured to take credit for. One of Kennedy’s team members was a Klan defector turned labor organizer, a man who might have been reluctant to share the spotlight.
In any event, Kennedy produced voluminous documentation to support the claims he made about the Klan. There’s no question that he helped infiltrate the group and did great harm to the organization by holding its secretive rituals up for ridicule.
Stetson Kennedy deserves to be remembered for his bravery and his contributions to American journalism, even if his storytelling devices wouldn’t pass muster today.
[Photo credit: Wikimedia, Creative Commons.]