Stetson Kennedy - I'm STILL writing his name in
My profile notes one of my favorite books as Freakonomics, a partnership of NYT writer, Stephen Dubner, and U of Chicago economics Nobelist-to-be, Steven Levitt. A great book that chronicles Dr. Levitt's unique way of using economics theory and actual data to ask and answer difficult societal questions.
One of their chapters compares the KKK to real estate agents, the connection being that information asymmetry provides one side with an economic or philosophical advantage. Just as real estate agents create 'competition' when you are trying to buy or sell a house, the KKK created a more hostile racist environment by making it appear there were more racists than in actuality (although one racist is one too many in my book).
The beauty of this chapter of Freakonomics is the retelling of the story of Stetson Kennedy, a folklorist and civil rights activist who among other things documented his infiltration of the KKK in his 1954 book, The Klan Unmasked. I've not yet met Mr. Kennedy but knew of him during my pharmacology graduate training at a certain Southern university. I won't do adequate justice to him here. Check instead his website and a recent NPR radio interview.
Stetson Kennedy is the stuff of legends: turned down for WWII due to a back injury, he chose to fight fascism at home by signing up for the KKK and reporting their codes and activities to radio shows and ultimately, in a book. Still around at age 89, he continues to stand as one who has dedicated his life, at great risk of personal injury, to letting us each live without fear of persecution. Kennedy was also a good friend and frequent host to Woody Guthrie and immortalized by Billy Bragg and Wilco in their adaptation of Guthrie's lyrics in the song, "Stetson Kennedy."
In 1940s North Florida and Georgia, it would take great courage to pretend to be a Klansman and then reveal their innermost workings to the press. No blogs, no Internet in these days, folks.
Messers. Dubner and Levitt got great mileage, in part, out of Mr. Kennedy's story: a national bestseller for most of this year.
But today, Mr. Dubner has backpedalled saying that some of Kennedy's Klan infiltration was done by a 'John Brown" who was enlisted by Kennedy. The Freakonomics website details a number of documents where Kennedy himself notes that another individual may have provided some of the information that he claimed to have obtained personally.
I don't get it. Why does an accomplished NYT writer feel so motivated to discredit an 89-year-old civil rights leader who had more balls than he could ever hope to have? Wasn't 'John Brown' just a pseudonym for Mr. Kennedy for the official record in case the Klan was ever to discover his identity. After all, the bottom line is the same: the actions of Stetson Kennedy embarrassed the Klan and high-ranking Southern politicians who were linked to the Klan. The Klan's momentum was clearly stunted following Kennedy's revelations.
Freakonomics has done quite well, but Dubner now promises to include the allegedly updated Klan story in a new edition. Dubner has first ridden the coattails of a genius economist (Dr. Levitt) together with a remarkable civil rights advocate (Kennedy). Is there no more original material for Mr. Dubner to generate without making a story out of questioning the reputation of an old man?
I look forward to the response from Kennedy and his associates since he has more than once been challenged by writers lesser than Dubner. I just don't get it. Is it the aftermath of the Jayson Blair thing? Is Dubner starved for new material?
In the meantime, and in the words of Mr. Guthrie, Stetson Kennedy is the man for me.