Memoirs of a Klansman

Walter Coker/Folio Weekly

Stetson Kennedy

Folio Weekly | January 31, 2006
The same week that the author of A Million Little Pieces was forced to admit that parts of his best-selling memoir were fiction, Stetson Kennedy’s legacy role as a Klanbuster and Florida folk hero has also been called into question. In a Sunday New York Times article published on Jan. 8, titled "Hoodwinked?" Freakonomics authors Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt raised doubts about the veracity of Kennedy's celebrated 1954 book, The Klan Unmasked. The article essentially says that Kennedy misrepresented his work infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan in the late 1940s.

The authors contend that Kennedy's book, in which he claimed to infiltrate the Atlanta chapter of the Ku Klux Klan under the identity of John Perkins, encyclopedia salesman, is in fact based on information he gained from a source inside the Klan and his work as a journalist -- not time spent undercover.

In a hard-boiled detective novel style, The Klan Unmasked offers a firsthand account of Kennedy's experiences in the Ku Klux Klan and his reporting on the group's activities to the Anti-Defamation League, the FBI, and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. Kennedy also sent missives to the media and radio producers, who used the information to expose and weaken the Klan.

It was a groundbreaking piece of journalism. The Klan put a bounty on Kennedy’s head -- $1,000 per pound -- but the expose won him international acclaim. He lectured widely about his Klan-busting activities after he came out and granted years of interviews about his daring work.

Dubner and Levitt contend that Kennedy's papers show the Klan stories actually come from his interviews with Klan members and from information fed to him by a Klan informant who used the name "John Brown" in reports filed with the Anti-Defamation League and law enforcement. In a letter to the ADL dated Jan. 21, 1946 (reprinted on, Kennedy says that a union worker and former Klan official is "joining the Klan for me." And in a memo from Kennedy dated May 6, 1946, he says "John Brown" is now a member of the Klan's inner circle, the Klavalier Klub. In The Klan Unmasked, Kennedy himself is portrayed as a member of the Klan’s hit squad.

Asked about charges, Kennedy explains he compiled information from Brown, from his own research and from his firsthand experience as a Klan infiltrator, and recast it as a first-person account. He says he wrote the book that way for dramatic impact and also because he’d promised John Brown that he’d protect his identity. He notes he did give credit to Brown at the beginning of the book, calling him "Bob" and saying he "risked his life many times" while helping with the book.

"The important thing was to make it a narrative," he says. "I intermingled what happened to him and what happened to me."

Peggy Bulger, director of the American Folklife Archive at the Library of Congress, spent six years reviewing Kennedy’s papers and published her dissertation on him in 1992. She says Kennedy explained to her that the narrator in his book is a composite. "Stetson was very truthful and up front." She notes that the book is not a scholarly work with an index or footnotes. "This book was written like a Mickey Spillane mystery to grab public attention," she says. "He was writing a book to expose the Ku Klux Klan."

Bulger notes Kennedy was a folklorist, collecting folktales with the WPA during the Great Depression, and he used the techniques of a folklorist or an ethnographer to collect information on the Klan. He was also an agent for social change. By exposing the secret signs and code words that the Klan used and their secret rituals, "he was trying to break up the Klan by using their folklore against them."

That’s why Dubner and Levitt first celebrated Kennedy in Freakonomics. The authors say Kennedy took a situation of information asymmetry, where the Klan's secrets contributed to their power, and "dumped it on its head." But the authors now no longer believe Kennedy did what he said he did. "Taking someone else’s experiences and casting it in first person for dramatic impact is, within the established standards of writing non-fiction, a fairly big sin," contends Dubner in an e-mail.

After spending a couple of hours in Kennedy's archives at the Schomberg Center for Research in New York, one Kennedy defender says he saw several documents that prove Kennedy went undercover as a member of the Klan. One of the reports detailed a Klan rally attended by both Brown and Kennedy on Sept. 16, 1946, says Nathan Salsburg, production manager for the Alan Lomax Archives, who is also helping Kennedy compile a collection of his essays.

Other Kennedy defenders -- and there are some highly regarded ones -- say it doesn't matter. Morris Dees, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center, says Kennedy risked his life to expose the Klan. "It's just bullshit," says Dees. "I'd take his contribution over the contribution of these authors who are attacking the integrity of a 90-year-old man. It’s contemptible."

Hodding Carter III, Carter administration spokesperson, professor of public policy at University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and board member of the Stetson Kennedy Foundation, says Kennedy's use of the first person doesn’t undermine the value of his work. "Stetson was deeply involved in ways few if any white people were, and he did it in ways that are inspirational to us folks that grew up surrounded by a bunch of conformist racists," he says. "In every way that matters, Stetson experienced everything he wrote about. As a Southerner, Stetson Kennedy remains an extraordinary example of the kind of bravery and engagement and point of view that was sadly lacking in 99 percent of his contemporaries."

Author Studs Terkel concurs: "I admire the guy very much."

Dubner and Levitt learned about the discrepancies from a Florida author who'd worked with Kennedy on a book about Civil Rights leader Harry T. Moore. Ben Green researched microfilm of Kennedy’s papers, and after reading Bulger’s dissertation, began to have doubts about Kennedy's portrayal. Out of 70 reports on Klan activities that Green reviewed, 47 came directly from John Brown. The remaining 23 have Kennedy’s name on them, but are based on information from John Brown, not firsthand accounts.

"The big issue is, was he there at any of this?" asks Green. When he raised this question to Kennedy in 1994, he says Kennedy threatened to sue if Green printed the allegations. The two agreed that Kennedy's name would be taken off the book and that Green would not discuss his doubts.

When asked about Green's claim last week, Kennedy explained that he signed some of his own dispatches with Brown's name. Asked which incidents he witnessed firsthand and which came from Brown, Kennedy demurred that it was difficult to remember.

Green points to one dramatic example: the murder of a black taxi driver who gave rides to white women. In The Klan Unmasked, Kennedy tells the story complete with dialogue: "I had seen a murder committed, and yet there was no one to whom I could turn." He repeated this in a 1990 St. Petersburg Times article. But Green says the only mention of the murder in Kennedy’s papers comes from a report in which Brown overheard the Klan talking about the murder. Asked whether or not he had personally witnessed the crime, Kennedy said he was unsure, but that it "probably came from Brown."

Despite Green's contention, even he acknowledges Kennedy "has done a lot of things to be proud of, nobody is questioning that." But Green wants Kennedy to clear up the confusion. "Which of those dramatic scenes in The Klan Unmasked is John Brown and which is Stetson Kennedy?" asks Green. "He needs to be forthcoming."

Art Teitelbaum, southern director of the ADL, disagrees. "There is actual truth and there is fundamental truth," he says. "[This] doesn’t alter the basic truth of his life, which I think expressed a commitment to human rights and an active opposition to bigotry."

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