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Stetson Kennedy, Who 'Unmasked' The Klan, Dies

Originally published on August 28, 2011 12:42 pm
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JOHN YDSTIE, Host:

Stetson Kennedy was an important figure in the history of the Ku Klux Klan. But he's a man the Klan would rather forget.

Kennedy, who died yesterday at the age of 94, infiltrated the Klan in the 1940s and undermined its power. He wrote books about the experience, shared the names of prominent Klan members with journalists, and aided authorities in Klan prosecutions.

In 2005, during an interview of NPR's TALK OF THE NATION, host Neal Conan asked Kennedy why he took the risk.

NEAL CONAN: If you'd been exposed, you would have been in serious trouble.

STETSON 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 backyard we had our own racist terrorists, the Ku Klux Klan. And it occurred to me that someone needed to do a number on them.

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.

KENNEDY: Prior to TV, yes. And 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. And, of course, they never showed up again.

YDSTIE: Stetson's books about the Klan include "The Klan Unmasked" and the "Jim Crow Guide to the USA." And he contributed to the popular "Superman" radio show, exposing the Klan's racism and ridiculing its rituals, in an episode titled "Superman versus the Grand Dragon."

Stetson Kennedy was also a prominent folklorist. During the Great Depression he had a job with the Works Progress Administration, recording the stories of ordinary Southerners.

Kennedy died yesterday at a hospice in St. Augustine, Florida. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.