StoryCorps and Stetson Kennedy
NEAL CONAN, host:
This week in Washington, a unique national project gets under way. It's called StoryCorps. Two Airstream trailers outfitted with recording studios will roam the country to collect people's memories of their lives. Folklorist Stetson Kennedy is in town this week to help launch the project and he's a great pick for it. Stetson Kennedy has been collecting stories for over 70 years. In the 1930s he was director of folklore, oral history and ethnic studies for the Florida Federal Writers' Project. He worked alongside Zora Neale Hurston to collect stories from Florida's working folk. In the 1940s, as an investigative report, he infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan. He's the author of many books, including "The Klan Unmasked" and "Jim Crow Guide: The Way It Was." Just over a month ago, he was inducted into the Florida Artists Hall of Fame. Stetson Kennedy joins us in Studio 3A, and we're going to hear some of his stories today.
Thanks very much for being with us.
Mr. STETSON KENNEDY (Folklorist): Oh, thank you for inviting me.
CONAN: I want to take you back to the 1930s when you worked for the WPA, the Works Project Administration. What was it like to get that first job as junior folklorist?
Mr. KENNEDY: Well, it was a very welcome event. In those days, it was the Great Depression...
Mr. KENNEDY: ...the big bust, and getting a WPA job was--you had to first qualify for being eligible for welfare--you had to take a pauper's oath and swear that you had no money and no job and no property and no prospect of getting any of those things. And Zora Hurston and I both had to take the oath, and therefore, we got the job.
CONAN: Well, in these days, people collecting stories like these use state-of-the-art tape recorders, digital recorders.
Mr. KENNEDY: Yes.
CONAN: What did you use?
Mr. KENNEDY: Just this morning, I spent the morning over at these Airstream sound rolling studios which you've mentioned, and looking at them and thinking back to 1937 when from the Library of Congress also we borrowed the prototype of sound recording equipment, portable equipment, and it was the size of a coffee table.
CONAN: Yeah, those days you must have been cutting disks.
Mr. KENNEDY: We did. This was, of course, before the tape recorder and before the wire recorder. And it was, as I say, more like a coffee table and so heavy that we needed two good men to carry it into the field and out on the railroad tracks and so on, and it was powered by two automobile batteries. So as I recall the first time we used it was in a soup kitchen over in the inner city in Jacksonville, Florida, the Eartha White Mission, and I had no sooner played it back a little bit so they could hear themselves and pick up steam that way...
CONAN: So that's what you did to get people to talk to you.
Mr. KENNEDY: ...good technique. Yes, I pretended I was checking it, you know, but I was actually getting them wound up.
Mr. KENNEDY: So I did that, and Eartha White threw up her hands and said, `Hold everything right there,' said, `We're going to have a little prayer.' And what she prayed was, said, `Dear Lord, this is Eartha White talking to you again.' And she said, `I just want to thank you for giving mankind the intelligence to make such a marvelous machine and for giving us a president like Franklin D. Roosevelt, who cares about preserving the songs that people sing.' And I couldn't help but think, in looking at these Airstreams, you know, I offer a little prayer of thanks, you know, 65 years later that we have rolling sound equipment and a Library of Congress and NPR to sponsor the expedition, so it's another time for thanks again.
CONAN: Well, I did want to ask you, before we leave the old days, working with Zora Neale Hurston--you were actually her boss. This was in the South, during Jim Crow. Kind of...
Mr. KENNEDY: I was only nominally her boss. She was her own boss, so...
CONAN: I bet she was.
Mr. KENNEDY: ...it was very difficult, wonderful.
CONAN: But during the age of Jim Crow--how did that work out?
Mr. KENNEDY: It--because Jim Crow was looking over everyone's shoulder, you know, and--including Washington, DC, and the...
Mr. KENNEDY: ...armed forces and the works, and it was virtually a taboo for black and white to work together or travel together or eat together, anything else, so that we couldn't really do a lot of field work hand in hand. So we sent her ahead, as her boss, as a scout to identify talent, and we'd follow up with this machine, as we mentioned. She--I recalled earlier, Alan Lomax, the pre-eminent musicologist whose entire collection the Library of Congress has recently acquired--Alan told me that in '35, Zora took him to Eatonville and the good old boys were driving through on the way to work and looking like they were going to make trouble, and so she said, `Alan, I'm going to have to paint you black.' And he swears she actually painted his hands and face black to avoid trouble.
CONAN: We're talking with folklorist Stetson Kennedy.
And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
I can't help but ask you about your work infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan. You used an alias: John Perkins?
Mr. KENNEDY: Yes, that was a family name. My uncle had been a Great Titan for North Florida, and I thought that would give me an entree to Klan inner circles.
CONAN: What made you take the risk? If you'd been exposed, you would have been in serious trouble.
Mr. KENNEDY: Well, we're talking about World War II and all my classmates were overseas fighting Nazism and--which is a form of racism, and I had a back injury and was not with them, so in our own back yard we had our own racist terrorists, the Ku Klux Klan. And it occurred to me that someone needed to do a number on them...
Mr. KENNEDY: ...and if not me, then who else, and I didn't hear anyone else speak up, so...
CONAN: Some of what you found out made it on to the radio, which was, of course, no TV in those days--this was a big deal.
Mr. KENNEDY: Prior to TV, yes, and as a matter of fact, Drew Pearson, who was Jack Anderson's boss, so to speak...
CONAN: The "Washington Merry-Go-Round," I think. Yeah.
Mr. KENNEDY: I think Anderson was his office boy at the time. Anyway, Drew Pearson of the "Washington Merry-Go-Round" had a weekly coast-to-coast radio program, so every Sunday we would broadcast the minutes of the Klan's last meeting, and I would provide the names of all the policemen and deputies and judges and prosecutors and businessmen and officeholders who had attended the Klan meeting. Of course, they never showed up again. And attendance dropped, likewise--general attendance--and...
CONAN: Also exposed their passwords and their secret handshake.
Mr. KENNEDY: Well, after Pearson and I went to the regular "Superman" and "Superman"--we got up a show, "The Grand Dragon," "Superman vs. the Grand Dragon," so that I was providing all the passwords. As fast as the Grand Dragon could think up a new password, I would pass it on to Superman, so all the kids in America had it week to week. The Grand Dragon said, `I might as well call Superman myself and collect the money myself.'
CONAN: You got the area code for Metropolis and you kept him out.
Mr. KENNEDY: It was $10, I recall, per password. Big money in those days.
CONAN: Before we let you go, you've been observing America's race story your whole life. As you look at the story today, have we learned anything?
Mr. KENNEDY: Well, that's a long story and a long answer. And the short answer I don't know what to say. I think we made appreciable progress, very appreciable, but there's a vast amount still to be done. I'd like to say that I don't want you whispering sweet nothings about brotherhood in my ear if you're riding on my back. And get off my back first, and then we can talk. And I think that goes for races and classes and continents and across the board.
CONAN: As you look ahead towards this project, what would you hope--you always hear historians saying, you know, everybody writes about the extraordinary things that happen. Nobody ever records what happens in daily life.
Mr. KENNEDY: Yes, and of course, it's the people who make history and this whole idea of oral history, and we invented it, so to speak, back in the '30s in the Writers' Project, and we called it life history then, and it's--the roots go very deep, back to Whitman and Sandburg and then, of course, in later times people like Woody Guthrie. And it's a question of, you know, vox populi, letting the people speak for themselves and to tell their own history. And it has the advantages of the people making oral history or they were participants. They say, `I took part,' or, `I witnessed it,' or, `I smelled it or tasted it or touched it and experienced it.' So we get qualities that you don't get from the professional historian back in the stacks.
CONAN: Well, thank you very much for joining us today. We appreciate it.
Mr. KENNEDY: Thank you.
CONAN: Stetson Kennedy was with us here in Studio 3A. In 1950, Woody Guthrie wrote a song about Stetson Kennedy. Years later, Billy Bragg wrote accompanying music and performed the song with the group Wilco in 1997. Here's a bit of it.
(Soundbite of music)
WILCO: (Singing) I done spent my last 3 cents mailing my letter to the president. Didn't make a show, I didn't make a dent, so I'm swinging over this independent gent, Stetson Kennedy, writing his name in, Stetson Kennedy, writing his name in. I can't win out to save my soul long as Smathers-Dupont's got me in the hole. The war profit boys are squawking and balking. That's what's got me out here walking and talking, knocking on doors and windows. Wake up and run down election...
CONAN: To hear NPR's coverage of the StoryCorps project, visit our Web site at npr.org.
This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.