Stetson Kennedy: The Human Rights Activist That Infiltrated The KKK in the 1940s
After being unable to join the United States Army during World War II because of back problems, Stetson Kennedy of Jacksonville, Florida decided to channel his patriotism towards fighting who he dubbed "homegrown racial terrorists" in the Jim Crow South instead.
Working with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, Kennedy joined the Klan and multiple Klan-affiliated organizations under the name of his dead uncle - a man who ironically was a proud and loyal Ku Klux Klan member before his death. Kennedy wanted to gather evidence which could be used to prosecute members of the Klan. His participation in the Klan yielded crucial information which he gave to the authorities over the course of 1946 and 1947.
In 1947, after a year of working undercover, Kennedy ditched his pseudonym and left the Klan in order to testify in a trial against the leaders of a Klan-affiliated neo-Nazi group called "The Columbians" in Atlanta. His testimony ensured that the leaders of the Columbians were found guilty and sent to prison on charges of incitement to riot (these Columbians and several others of the group had demonstrated outside the home of a black couple who bought the property from white owners), and usurping police powers. Many years later, Kennedy said about the Columbians, the Klan, and other racial supremacist groups: "There were an awful lot of evils abroad in the world at the time, as there still are, but I couldn't help but feel that racism was perhaps the most evil"
After leaving the Klan, Kennedy contacted the producers of the radio program "The Adventures of Superman" and pitched them a new storyline: Superman meets and defeats the KKK. Needing a new enemy to vanquish, the producers greenlight the idea.
The 16-episode series, “The Clan of the Fiery Cross,” aired in June, 1946 and effectively chipped away at the Klan’s mystique, gradually revealing their secret codewords and rituals. Listen to the episodes above. And take heart in knowing this: According to Stephen J. Dubner and Steven Levitt, the authors of Freakonomics, The Clan of the Fiery Cross was “the greatest single contributor to the weakening of the Ku Klux Klan.” Mocked and trivialized, the Klan’s numbers went back on the decline.
Kennedy told all of its listeners the innermost secrets of the Ku Klux Klan, including their codewords and solemn rituals. He even read out the roll call sheets of many sheriffs, public officials, and businessmen who attended Klan meetings.
For example, one secret which he exposed was that a traveling Klan member see
king out fellow Klansmen in a new town would ask for a “Mr. Ayak” — "Ayak” (Are You a Klansman?) If the other person's response was: “Yes, and I also know a Mr. Akai” — "Akai" (A Klansman Am I), then the Klan member knew he had a buddy.
Kennedy's trivialization and exposure of the Klan's secrets on the radio show were credited with stripping the Klan's mystique from them and causing some damage to their recruitment rates. Not only this, but information from Kennedy helped the IRS press for the collection of a $685,000 tax lien from the group - a massive hit to the Klan's finances.
Naturally, the Klan was severely unhappy with what Kennedy had done. The Klan firebombed his house several times in retaliation. That, coupled with many threats to his life, forced Kennedy to flee to France for eight years. But Kennedy later returned home to Florida and he was credited with taking part in civil rights sit-ins in the 1960s, and he also reported on demonstrations led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
The Klan never got Kennedy for what he did to the organization - he died peacefully in 2011.