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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Stetson Kennedy, May 11, 1990. Interview A-0354. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Working to "soften up" the segregated South

Kennedy describes one of his earlier efforts in his campaign to "soften up" the South and the nation for the eventual dismantling of segregation—a failed bid for the United States Senate. He goes on to discuss other instances of opposition to segregation.

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

STETSON KENNEDY:
No, in 1950 I ran for the U.S. Senate here in Florida when Claude Pepper was defeated by George Smathers in the Democratic primary. Some friends urged me to announce as an independent, write-in candidate in the general election against Smathers. The NAACP's political adjunct called a state meeting and invited all of the three candidates. The other two didn't respond even, and I showed. They endorsed me. I campaigned on a platform of "Right Supremacy, Not White Supremacy," "Total Equality," "Color Blind Candidate," thing like that. Couldn't get the Florida radio stations to broadcast my tapes, radio in those days. Federal communications, I appealed to them, and they finally made them play the tapes. I had the pleasure of sitting in Florida [laughter] gyp joints, and watching the faces when the Total Equality message came on [laughter] . It was like doomsday, you know. They couldn't believe they weren't drunk and hearing things. But of course, the intention was not to get elected but to clear the air.
JOHN EGERTON:
And of course, you got tromped.
STETSON KENNEDY:
This was under the heading of what I said earlier, what I call softening up the South for righteous. I think those of us who were doing that sort of thing in the '30s, '40s, and '50s hopefully made things a bit easier in the '60s when it began to move. Less blood.
JOHN EGERTON:
In other words, your feeling would be that because this small group of people were out there doing what they did, that it made the inevitable clash of white and black and whatnot less of a new civil war than it would have been otherwise?
STETSON KENNEDY:
Well, I'm sure you're as much aware as I am that we're not really talking South, we're talking about the nation, and that segregation had permeated the nation. Even legalized and compulsory segregation was not confined to the South. Restrictions against racial intermarriage was in the majority of the states, a matter of law. The federal government, the intelligence community, the Armed Forces, all segregated and grossly discriminating on the basis of race. So it was not a southern phenomenon but a national one. We were an integrally racist state in much the same way that the Union of South Africa is in terms of it being a part of the basic law and institutions in society. And your question was did the things we were able to do in those decades. . . ? It was our intent certainly, and it's interesting to note the parallels with South Africa now. You have the fact in this country of the Durham Statement, issued by blacks at Durham, North Carolina. I forget the year, what was it, mid '40s?
JOHN EGERTON:
'42, I think. It was during the war.
STETSON KENNEDY:
After the war, I believe.
JOHN EGERTON:
No, the Durham Statement was in '42. The Atlanta Statement that responded to it was in '43, and SRC was born out of it in '44.
STETSON KENNEDY:
It's in my book, but I don't read my own books [laughter] .
JOHN EGERTON:
Yeah, I know. It's relatively minor.
STETSON KENNEDY:
That explains it partly. I suppose the war brought about a considerable impetus to the whole thing. You had some people arguing that black rights should be put on a back burner, and like including labor rights and no strike policies until the war had been won. A. Philip Randolph and other blacks were saying, "Be damned if that's so. There's never a better time to push for black rights than during a war for the four freedoms." You're going to have four freedoms world wide, then black rights in America are an integral part of it. So we had to march on Washington during the war. And as you say, the Durham Statement was an ultimatum in my estimation by blacks, and the Atlanta Statement was a response by southern whites to it. You had ensuing controversy or difference of opinion, at least, between the Southern Regional Council and the Southern Conference for Human Welfare on that question of whether the thing to do was to attack discrimination or to include a frontal assault on segregation, per se.
JOHN EGERTON:
And you ended up saying that both of them were necessary for strategic reasons. That's the way, at least, I read what you. . . .
STETSON KENNEDY:
In Southern Exposure I promulgated a strategy that both camps were very much needed, in order that all those who were willing to oppose discrimination, the more the merrier. At that same time, those who were willing to attack all segregation, that too was past due. So that the two efforts were being made simultaneously. We had things like "the first feet in the door." I'm not sure that anyone's ever gone looking for those. But I noticed that [Bob] Strozier's name as editor of the Macon Telegraph, was it? He was a liberal gentleman, and went so far as to write editorials urging Macon to hire one black policeman, and that was the first black policeman in the South since reconstruction.