Klan Buster still active at 90

ST. AUGUSTINE · Stetson Kennedy still gets threatening phone calls, six decades after he gained fame for infiltrating and exposing the Ku Klux Klan and other domestic hate groups.

In some, the caller says, “This is Klan.” To which Kennedy replies, “This is Klan Buster.” Another caller says, “We think about you every time we drive by your house.”

Kennedy, who turned 90 in October, is not letting age or the Klan slow him down. He’s working on his autobiography, Dissident-at-Large, and another book on Key West. Kennedy, who is miffed at recent allegations that some of his writings about the Klan were fabricated or exaggerated, also is giving a speech this month at the Pentagon. To top it off, he just got married for the seventh time.

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“He gets more serious work done in a day than most people half his age,” said author and bookstore owner Sandra Parks, who married Kennedy in November. “I have to run to keep up with him.”

Born in Jacksonville and a maternal relation to John B. Stetson, the hat maker, Kennedy was exposed early to the inequities of segregation and treatment of minorities — his maternal grandfather was a lieutenant in the Confederate Army and an uncle belonged to the Klan. And as a writer for the Florida Writers Project in the 1930s, he continued to see the evils of segregation, extreme poverty based on race and class and forced labor. A black colleague was forced to sleep in her car at hotels or with the maids.

He began his personal war against what he called “homegrown racial terrorists” during World War II after he was deemed unfit for military service because of a back injury. He was director of fact-finding for the southeastern office of the Anti-Defamation League and director of the Anti-Nazi League of New York.

“All my friends were in service and they were being shot at in a big way. They were fighting racism whether they knew it or not,” Kennedy said. “At least I could see if I could do something about the racist terrorists in our backyard.”

Using evidence salvaged from the grand dragon’s waste basket, he enabled the Internal Revenue Service to press for collection of an outstanding $685,000 tax lien from the Klan in 1944 and he helped draft the brief used by the state of Georgia to revoke the Klan’s national corporate charter in 1947.

Kennedy infiltrated the Klan by using the name of his deceased uncle as a way to gain trust and membership. But the Klan did not know that Kennedy was giving its secrets to the outside world, including the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, the Anti-Defamation League and Drew Pearson, a columnist for The Washington Post.

When he learned of a plan by the Klan to take action, he would make sure it was broadcast, thwarting them.

“They were afraid to do anything. They knew somebody was on the inside. They had first-class detectives looking, and I was trying hard not to be caught,” Kennedy said.

Kennedy said he always feared exposure and remains scared — “Nonstop, to date” — mentioning threats, the shooting of his dog and frequent attempts to burn down his home.

In the late 1940s, Kennedy took his fight against the Klan onto a national stage when, while working as a consultant to the Superman radio show, he provided information to producers about the Klan, from their rituals to secret code words. The episodes were titled “Clan of the Fiery Cross.”

“Exposing their folklore — all their secret handshakes, passwords and how silly they were, dressing up in white sheets” was one of the strongest blows delivered to the Klan, said Peggy Bulger, director of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. She has been a friend of Kennedy for about 30 years and did her doctoral thesis on Kennedy’s work as a folklorist.

“If they weren’t so violent, they would be silly.”

He testified before a federal grand jury in Miami about the Klan’s chain of command in the bombing death of Florida NAACP leader Harry Moore and bombings aimed at black, Catholic and Jewish centers in Miami.

He presented evidence in federal court in Washington, D.C., of Klan bombings and other violence aimed at preventing blacks from voting in the 1944 and 1946 elections.

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