Documenting the American South Logo
oral histories of the American South
Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Stetson Kennedy, May 11, 1990. Interview A-0354. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Need for activism was evident in civil rights South

Kennedy denies that he experienced an epiphany that inspired him to become a human rights advocate. He says that the South's rottenness was so obvious that it was natural to work to fix it.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Stetson Kennedy, May 11, 1990. Interview A-0354. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

But it seems to be that there's an important story to tell in terms of some of the personalities who were sort of the force majeure [major force] in each case in the whole scene of, I call it, softening up the South for righteousness, the '30s and '40s, which, really, we were looking for chinks in the wall, and doing what we could to widen them, and raising standards, and clearing air, in the hope that someday it would be possible to hit the streets.
JOHN EGERTON:
But why, though?
STETSON KENNEDY:
Why?
JOHN EGERTON:
Yeah, why were you thinking in those terms when you were just a 30 year old man in a land full of people who didn't think that way?
STETSON KENNEDY:
Well, even in high school, my classmates were saying to each other, "What got into Stet?" you know. So it happened early, whatever it was.
JOHN EGERTON:
Do you think you know what it was?
STETSON KENNEDY:
I think so. You know, with people asking me constantly, in retrospect, I'm aware that journalists especially want some magic key incident that turns you around, you know, and made a saint out of a sinner, or whatever [Laughter.] .
JOHN EGERTON:
Paul on the road to Damascus.
STETSON KENNEDY:
Although there were plenty of incidents, all of my senses, all of the time, were telling me that things were rotten in the South, throughout the South, in the world for that matter. Not only in terms of race and apartheid, but all manner of injustice. I was equally concerned with all manner, and race was just one of the most gross injustices we had going. So that my answer, don't ask me what was wrong with me, what was wrong with the rest of the state and South and nation and world that was engaged in that sort of oppression of one people over another.