He's been married six times. He comfortably butts heads with government agencies when it comes to environmental concerns like his beloved St. Johns River. The KKK harassed him for decades after he released The Klan Unmasked in 1954, and he's taken hits from the mainstream media concerning his reporting of the white supremacist group.
Tonight, the literary icon rolls into the Historic Train Depot in Tarpon Springs. Stetson Kennedy, the 93-year-old Florida Artist Hall of Famer, will discuss his books, including Palmetto Country and The Federal Writers' Project Guide to 1930s Florida, as well as share memories of Tarpon Springs more than 70 years ago.
Kennedy's career began in 1937 when he left the University of Florida to take a job with the Franklin Roosevelt administration's Work Projects Administration. He traveled the state gathering folklore and data for the agency's guidebook series, which eventually included such writers as Zora Neale Hurston and Studs Terkel. During World War II, Kennedy, who did not serve in the military because of a back injury, worked for the southeastern office of the Anti-Defamation League. The work grew into a lifelong battle against the Ku Klux Klan.
"He is a firebrand,'' said Tina Bucavalas, curator of Arts and Historical Resources for Tarpon Springs, who co-authored South Florida Folklife with Kennedy and Peggy Bulger. "He is a passionate man trapped in a 93-year-old's body.''
We caught up with Kennedy via phone from his home in St. Johns County.
Can you describe how you remember Tarpon Springs in 1939?
The sponge boats were very active. I remember driving down the back streets where sponging families lived and looking at gear and seeing their boats pulled up on land. The waterfront was totally different than today. It was a working waterfront for fishing and sponging. Tourists were scarce.
Wasn't that typical of waterfront towns throughout the state?
It was. And I want to mention in Key West there was also a sponge industry. The Greeks stopped there first before settling in Tarpon. Bahamian spongers, "conchs,'' were also sponging there, using long poles to collect the sponges. They could reach over the sides of the boat and hook the sponges while looking through glass-bottom buckets. They believed the lead shoes of the Greek divers were killing sponges. The conch spongers set fire to Greek boats, and the Greeks left Key West.
With the economy struggling in 2010, what do you think about the government initiating a contemporary WPA today?
When Obama campaigned he said he'd focus on Main Street and not Wall Street. Yet, he joined with the rest of the government types by giving billions to Wall Street. The same thing happened with the original WPA. The banks got all kinds of welfare money, and when it came time to give people jobs, the businesses and the bankers started raising hell. Even so, since loss of jobs is one of the biggest parts about this Depression now, I think yes, we need a big jobs programs.
I envy your job as a roving writer for the WPA. What about some sort of writers project now? Would that be valuable?
Writers were scarce back then. With all the media we have now, I can't help but feel we are all drowning in a word tsunami. We're so overwhelmed in trying to keep up, and in keeping our sanity, we are not able to think. Words are like bees buzzing in our head. And some, not all, but some of the media is spitting out wordage that is poisonous.
Have you ever regretted your decision on leaving the University of Florida?
I dropped out because WWII was about to start. I felt the universities were unaware. They were turning their back on what was causing the war. They were teaching ancient history and turning their back on modern history.
How would you describe your hometown of Jacksonville?
Jacksonville has been very good to me lately. It redeemed itself with the number of the people who came out for Obama, but Jacksonville used to be a stronghold of white supremacy and white rule.
What advice do you give kids in Florida today?
The preceding generations are leaving them with a bum deal. I feel sorry for them. I'd tell them if they don't wise up and look out for their own interest they'll have trouble.