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Florynce "Flo" KennedyThe Life of a Black Feminist Radical$

Sherie M. Randolph

Print publication date: 2015

Print ISBN-13: 9781469623917

Published to North Carolina Scholarship Online: May 2016

DOI: 10.5149/northcarolina/9781469623917.001.0001

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The Fight Is One That Must Be Continued

The Fight Is One That Must Be Continued

In the Courtroom, in the Press, and in Political Organizations, 1961–1965

(p.71) 4 The Fight Is One That Must Be Continued
Florynce "Flo" Kennedy

Sherie M. Randolph

University of North Carolina Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines Flo Kennedy’s move away from law and closer to activism and journalism. Working as a lawyer left Kennedy profoundly disappointed with the legal system. She was frustrated with the judicial system as an avenue for securing simple justice, let alone social change. As her disillusionment deepened, she drew closer to radicalism, finding journalism (e.g., columnist for Queen’s Voice) and political organizing (e.g., organizer of SNCC’s Wednesdays in Mississippi) more satisfying strategies for change. Kennedy strongly advocated the consumer boycott, which had previously been used by the Urban League, as a tactic that women and other oppressed groups could readily utilize. When Kennedy introduced guerrilla street theatre into a protest she revived and extended one of her favorite weapons.

Keywords:   Lawyer/attorney, Social change, Wednesdays in Mississippi, SNCC, Journalism, Consumer boycott, Guerrilla street theatre

A year after Don Wilkes left their law firm, Florynce Kennedy was still gasping for air and trying to keep her practice afloat. His embezzlement and abrupt departure left her stunned, both emotionally and financially, and forced her to take stock of her commitment to practicing law. Kennedy’s problems were compounded when David Fields, her remaining partner, left to start his own firm.1 Back to practicing alone, Flo held tightly to her remaining music industry clients and worked even harder to attract new ones. The estates of Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker were her most prominent cases in the early 1960s. Parker’s widow and Holiday’s widower both hired Kennedy to represent them against the record and publishing companies that were withholding the artists’ full earnings from their estates. Kennedy’s work on these two cases cemented her reputation as an entertainment lawyer willing to battle the industry on behalf of artists and their families.

In representing these musicians’ estates, Flo discovered the insidious relationships among record and publishing companies, advertisers, and the courts. She became especially interested in cases involving intellectual rights and infringement of copyright, whereby large corporations profited while artists received little or no monetary compensation for their creative work.

Despite Kennedy’s success in some entertainment cases and her growing show business clientele, she later complained that the law was a “one-ass-at-a-time-proposition” (p.72) and was therefore not an efficient use of her energy.2 Her inability to make substantive change or to garner substantial financial, political, or personal rewards from her profession pushed her even further away from seeing the law as an avenue for justice “or even simple resistance to oppression.”3 In this period, she came to understand the power of the media as a way of challenging injustice and began to devote some of her time and energy to journalism. The press, she was learning, was a powerful avenue for public influence because it reached and immediately affected a wide swath of people. Once Wilkes’s debts were almost paid off and her practice and reputation were saved, Kennedy began to explore political organizing outside the courtroom. Kennedy’s intellectual and political journey both inside and outside the courts during the early 1960s formed a key foundation for her later politics.

The Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker Estates: Fighting in the Courtroom

A year after Billie Holiday’s death, Kennedy became the attorney for her estate. Holiday’s widower, Louis McKay, was frustrated by the original lawyer’s lack of diligence in collecting all that he believed the estate was owed and in selling the movie rights to Holiday’s life story.4 No doubt impressed with Kennedy’s earlier legal work on Holiday’s behalf, McKay contacted her for help.

As the estate’s lawyer, Kennedy moved forward vigorously with the customary legal tasks involved. She began by contacting Holiday’s previous counsel, the performing rights associations, the insurance companies, and the artists’ unions. Much to her surprise, she found that Holiday’s management company, headed by Joe Glaser of the Associated Booking Corporation, had not affiliated her with Broadcast Music Inc. (BMI) or the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP). “Even worse,” she said, “they had never collected from her last European tour.”5 For Kennedy, the management company’s “stupidity and cupidity” was only surpassed by its failure to collect her benefits from the American Guild of Variety Artists (AGVA),6 despite the fact that Holiday had been a union member since April 1940.7 Reflecting later on the mismanagement of Holiday’s business affairs, Kennedy wrote, “I have no way of knowing whether the agency was too stupid, too corrupt, or just didn’t give a damn, but if they didn’t know, they were criminally ignorant, and if they did they were exploitative and racist.”8

During the same winter of 1960, she also became the lawyer for the (p.73) estate of Charlie “Yardbird” Parker through his widow, Doris Parker, and briefly for Leon Parker, Charlie’s adult son from a previous marriage.9 Parker’s management company, like Holiday’s, had failed to affiliate him with BMI and ASCAP. Instead, Kennedy discovered, the companies affiliated themselves with these organizations only to “collect performing rights royalties as publishers without alerting the composer or artist.”10 She explained that this “was virtually criminal … and of course [after their deaths] the record companies brought out memorial albums, on which they made good chunks of money.”11 Kennedy immediately affiliated both artists with BMI and AS CAP to prevent future records from being released without compensating the estates.

Still struggling to make ends meet, and with legal assistance only from an unpaid intern, Kennedy was not in a financial position to sue all of the companies that owed Holiday and Parker royalties. The record and publishing companies had an army of attorneys and were “ready to pit from 10 to 12 lawyers against any one lawyer representing an artist.”12 Aware that she would be vastly outnumbered and outspent by the defense, she devoted countless hours to researching effective legal strategies. Finally, Kennedy decided to utilize the law in a way that she stated had not been done before and was cost-efficient for her office and for the artists’ families. She filed an “order of discovery,” which at that time was not typically used for estate cases. Kennedy argued that she could not understand why this law could not be applied to a situation “where 10 or 15 or 20 publishing and record companies owed money to the estate of a jazz artist.”13 While the two cases were handled separately, Kennedy utilized the same legal strategies for both.

As was customary, Kennedy placed a “Notice to the Trade” in popular music periodicals warning “publishers and record companies that all money due … is hereby demanded payable immediately.”14 The estates belonged to the artists’ families, and anyone who profited from Parker’s or Holiday’s intellectual products had to remit payment to Kennedy’s office or be subject to “an immediate audit.”15 At the same time, Kennedy issued press releases and held press conferences in which she announced the two estates’ battles with the record and publishing companies and warned black artists that they “stand to lose thousands of dollars if they are not careful with contracts they enter with American Guild and Variety Artists.”16 During one interview she described AGVA’s maneuvers to deny the estates full restitution as a “breach in workers and union rights[,] seeing AGVA is a branch of the AFL-CIO.”17 These labor violations were so serious, Kennedy declared, that she had no choice but to contact New York’s (p.74) Democratic congressman and chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., for assistance.18 Powell was a prominent civil rights leader and had served as pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem before his election to Congress. When Kennedy arrived in New York during World War II, she had contacted Powell’s office for assistance in filing a lawsuit against the Missouri bus and café company that had abusively evicted her from her seat. Powell was the most powerful African American in Congress and was respected by his constituents—and feared by his antagonists—for his willingness to take controversial positions and for his media savvy.19 Moreover, he was probably the best headline-grabber of any black activist at that time. By contacting Powell, Kennedy was setting these cases within a political context and making them a matter of public debate. She understood that winning these cases would require a multifaceted approach that utilized the media and political pressure as well as the courts.

In the end, Kennedy’s tactics were successful, and she gained both clients royalties once denied them as well as funds from BMI and ASCAP. She was particularly successful in supporting McKay’s position as the Holiday estate’s executor and in preventing numerous publishers, record companies, and writers from releasing records and films without his permission or without giving the estate its full share of the profits.20 Although the exact amount of the legal settlements paid to the artists’ families remain undisclosed, it is clear that Kennedy gained both Louis McKay and Doris Parker a “fair amount” from the record companies.21 Kennedy later remarked that while looking after the estates of her clients, “I was also using my profession to strike a blow against the Establishment.”22

Despite Kennedy’s victory on behalf of the Holiday and Parker families, she lamented that the justice system did not offer many opportunities to alter relationships of power.23 “Handling the Holiday and Parker estates taught me more than I was really ready for about government and business delinquency,” she explained.24 Kennedy understood that she would have had a far more difficult time fighting for the very same artists when they were alive because “the record companies would just have cut off their livelihood.”25 Furthermore, she maintained that the courts were utterly ineffective “in rectifying the imbalance between the talented performers and the millionaire parasites who suck their blood.”26 In the end, although Kennedy was using her profession to “strike a blow” against the record and publishing companies and learning a great deal about the ways in which power circulated in the industry, her commitment to the practice of law was continually being tested. Kennedy said that “these experiences (p.75) … marked the beginning of a serious disenchantment, if indeed I ever was enchanted with the practice of law…. Not only was I not earning a decent living, there began to be serious questions in my mind whether practicing law could ever be an effective means of changing society, or even [of] simple resistance to oppression.”27

Some of Kennedy’s close friends were highly critical of her choice to work for Louis McKay and Doris Parker. Many believed that Doris was not Charlie’s legitimate widow. At the time of his death, Charlie and Doris were estranged, and for several years before his death, Charlie had lived with and had children by Chan Richardson Parker.28 Bernard Stollman, Kennedy’s white male intern, was convinced that Doris was a fraud after “Maely Dufty came to me and urged me to leave Kennedy,” warning him that “‘something was about to blow up.’”29 Chan had hired a prominent New York entertainment lawyer, and Mealy convinced Bernard that this lawyer would quickly defeat Doris’s claim to the estate. Maely also persuaded Bernard that Flo would be brought up on fraud charges because “Doris was not Charlie’s wife.”30 In court, Chan Parker’s lawyer claimed that Doris Parker was never legally married to Charlie Parker and that Chan was Charlie’s true heir.31

Even more seriously, during a press conference about the Parker estate, Kennedy had named Bernard Stollman as her associate working on the suit. Stollman was surprised and upset by this announcement because he had only conducted legal research on the case and was not privy to the overall legal strategy. At Maely’s urging he quickly resigned from Kennedy’s firm for fear that he too might face charges. Before Stollman began working with Kennedy he had been ignorant of the entertainment industry; as he later admitted, “I didn’t know anything about jazz.”32 Kennedy’s practice exposed him to a completely new legal and social world, and after he left her firm he began working as an entertainment attorney and opened ESP-Disk’ in 1963. This record label gave musicians complete control of their recordings without any commercial expectations, eventually becoming a major label for what was called free jazz. Stollman admitted to building on the connections he garnered while working for Kennedy.33

At the time of Stollman’s abrupt departure, he did not realize that Maely was either embellishing the facts or entirely misinformed. Despite what most people in the industry had come to believe, Chan and Charlie were not legally married, and Charlie had never divorced Doris.34 More important, Stollman was quick to devalue the ways in which Kennedy had elevated his status from an intern to an associate.35 In the press conference and in legal documents, Kennedy made it appear as if she were not just a (p.76) lone black woman lawyer but had a full legal team behind her.36 Already outnumbered and outspent by the defense, Kennedy identified Stollman as an attorney in this and in other cases in order to give the impression that she was part of a well-resourced firm with a white male associate. In this instance, however, seeking to avoid the risks she had incurred in her partnership with Wilkes, Kennedy controlled and limited her exposure in her relationship with Stollman. She deployed his name and utilized his work as a researcher but tightly guarded the inner workings and finances of her practice.37

Kennedy was well aware that many clients, the courts, and the public viewed a black woman attorney as powerless and disregarded her ability and acumen. Indeed, the press repeatedly listed Stollman first when reporting on the Parker case. It is unknown whether Kennedy gave the reporters her own name second or if the journalists inverted the names despite the fact that Kennedy was the only lawyer being interviewed at the press conference for the Charlie Parker estate case.38

While Stollman believed that Kennedy’s description of him as an associate was simply “puffery … and self-serving,” it was puffery that also served him well.39 The elevated impression Kennedy created of his place in the firm allowed him to present himself to musicians as an entertainment lawyer with experience beyond that of an unpaid intern. After Stollman’s unexpected departure at Dufty’s behest, Kennedy soldiered on without him.

Maely Dufty had her own reasons for seeking to undercut Flo. By 1961, Kennedy had taken legal action against the Duftys. Although Bill Dufty had recommended Kennedy to Billie Holiday, Kennedy’s work on behalf of Holiday’s estate had strained their friendship. Maely was no doubt offended when she received a letter from Kennedy’s office with Louis McKay’s signature “announcing that he will take action against anyone who published unauthorized writings” about Holiday.40 In addition, as the coauthor of Lady Sings the Blues, Bill was listed alongside Holiday’s record and publishing companies in various legal complaints, and he was sent instructions to inform Kennedy’s office about publications related to Holiday’s memoir.41 Both Maely and Bill must have been bruised by Flo’s legal actions. Being treated like intruders into Billie’s business affairs surely seemed all the more galling because Holiday was estranged from McKay at the time of her death while the Duftys were with her during her final days in the hospital.42 Moreover, Lou’s reputation as a womanizer “who used to play around” on Billie and as her sporadic drug supplier—rumors (p.77) that circulated in her inner circle—damned him in the eyes of these friends.43 Stollman remembered that although Maely and Flo had “a certain relationship, a certain bond … it was being tested … and Maely was angry” with Flo.44

For Kennedy, neither her friendship with the Duftys nor the low opinion that many people held of her clients mattered to her legal defense of the Holiday and Parker estates. Both Louis McKay and Doris Parker had a legal claim to their spouses’ estates. More important, Kennedy argued that the record and publishing companies were withholding much of the artists’ earnings. Ultimately, for Kennedy the real fight was against the record companies and publishers that repeatedly profited from the intellectual property of their artists and then paid them very little or nothing in return. The Parker and Holiday cases demonstrated to Kennedy just how vulnerable black musicians were to the industry’s hustle.

“Piracy of Ideas”: Fighting for Intellectual Property Rights

Kennedy’s work on behalf of these estates was part of her broader entertainment work involving infringement of copyright and intellectual rights by corporations. One of the lingering clients from the Wilkes, Kennedy and Fields days was a writer who sued the popular sitcom The Ann Sothern Show for stealing one of his ideas. In preparation for trial, Kennedy read up on the rules of copyright and the Federal Communications Commission’s many hearings on the issues it involved.45 Kennedy discovered “the financial structure of the media”46 and learned “how much a half-hour of TV time was worth, how much the advertisers pay, [and] how the advertisers and networks co-produce” shows.47 She began to realize that advertisers and TV networks had very close, mutually advantageous relationships and that the courts failed to regulate both the connections and the new media technologies that were emerging at this time. Advertisers played a crucial, even decisive role in programing; now, Kennedy said, she understood the reasons “why we had such terrible programs.”48 This knowledge, along with the lessons from the Parker and Holiday cases, deepened Kennedy’s awareness of the problem of intellectual property rights.

By the early 1960s, Kennedy’s reputation as an attorney who worked for struggling artists was spreading, and clients from New York City to small towns in North Carolina contacted her for help. One potential client wrote to Kennedy for assistance with a “lawsuit against CBS Television (p.78) Network for airing a television program” without compensating him; another wanted to sue NBC and MCA for misappropriating a title for a television series.49

As in her fight on behalf of musicians against the music industry, Kennedy hoped that she could help protect the rights of writers whose works were presented on the small screen. But protecting living writers and artists was very difficult. In inviting a potential client to meet with her, Kennedy warned him not to be overly hopeful: “I am sorry that I cannot report stunning success in the handling of the piracy of ideas suits with which I have been connected. I doubt that clearcut victories are in the cards. Nevertheless, I think the fight is one that must be continued relentlessly…. Meantime, good luck and keep swinging—and writing.”50

In order to find more effective approaches to these cases, Kennedy contacted other lawyers for help and advice and sketched out possible legal arguments, conceivable outcomes, and settlements previously achieved by other firms.51 Despite her preparation, the cases against The Ann Sothern Show and CBS were unsuccessful. Frustrated by the courts’ refusal to recognize her clients’ demands for protection of their ideas, she also reached out to the federal bar associations for help.52

Kennedy knew that the battle for artists’ rights would be prolonged, and if she was going to get the courts to move even an inch she would need to build a wide coalition of support. She hoped the Federal Bar Association would be just such an ally. As a member of the New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut branch of the association and also the secretary of the association’s Committee on Children and the Courts, she pushed the president, Peter Megargee Brown, to form a committee on “law of idea protection; copyright, unfair competition, trade regulation, etc.” Kennedy argued that “idea protection should begin where the ideas begin,” with the artist, and suggested that the Federal Bar Association, as a representative of the lawyers, could help to place this issue on the courts’ agenda.53 “Call it what you will, show business law, entertainment law, theatrical law, amusement or copyright law, this is a field which in my opinion, needs greater scrutiny by the bar, the courts and governmental agencies,” she wrote. “Government agencies such as the F.C.C. which theoretically could set up machinery to guard the interests of the creative members of our society have seemed … consistently to encourage a ‘laissez faire’ atmosphere. From the Internal Revenue Service and the Federal Trade Commission to the Department of Labour and the Copyright Office.”54 Kennedy maintained that the government was ineffective in safeguarding (p.79) the interests of the “creative segment of the public,” while the “interests of film companies, network theatre producers, literary and music publishers, record companies and talent agents, radio stations and television producers are well protected” by the courts and governmental agencies. “These companies are purveyors and communicators of ideas,” not the originators of these ideas, and therefore they should not be compensated and protected as if they were.55

Part of the difficulty, she recognized, lay in “the rapid growth of technological progress in fields of reproduction,” which had accelerated during the past decade.56 In the 1940s and 1950s, a variety of technological advances in radio, television, and record production transformed the entertainment industry. The creation of new high-fidelity equipment improved the sound quality on radio and encouraged the growth of FM stations.57 At the same time, the music industry was undergoing rapid development, since long-playing (LP) vinyl records held twenty minutes of music on each side.58 The television industry experienced a profound and far-reaching expansion during the 1950s. In the late 1940s, AT&T built a network that tied together TV stations throughout the United States. By 1956, most cities were linked to network programming. The growth was startlingly rapid: in 1950 only 5.9 million houses had TV, compared with over 42 million with radio, but “by the next decade the market penetration of television had almost equaled that of radio with 45.2 million homes compared to radio’s 49.5 million.”59

Kennedy complained that performing artists were not benefiting from these new advances and innovations. “Electronics has given rise to problems which are the public responsibility of no one,” she argued. Both the law and government regulation had failed to keep pace with change, leaving the field open to predatory behavior by large media companies.60 She believed that the Federal Bar Association in New York City in particular, where the entertainment industry was most prominent, could be a leader in spearheading this legal battle and setting the tone for the courts.

In Kennedy’s letters to clients she referred to the frequent theft they experienced at the hands of corporations and the lack of government regulation as the “piracy of ideas.”61 She argued that large television networks and music labels, “due to their size in the industry and the scope of their operations,” exercised unfettered power over a lone artist and could “effectively foreclose [a] single entrepreneur from a means of presenting his product to the public.”62 She likened the imbalance of power between artist and employer to “that of a mouse to a mountain,”63 enabling these (p.80) corporations to take the artist’s ideas without adequate, or even any, compensation. Moreover, she critiqued the courts and government agencies for turning a blind eye to this theft and allowing it to continue.

While Kennedy’s letters to the Bar Association president and to her clients do not mention the racism that exacerbated the exploitation of black artists, her experiences with Holiday and Parker made her acutely aware of the ways in which the work of black entertainers was repeatedly stolen and their assets mismanaged. Later Kennedy maintained that, in addition to stealing ideas from black artists, the “crummiest types” tended to attach themselves to black musicians and “pick what little flesh is left on their bones.”64

Kennedy was not satisfied with what she saw as Peter Megargee Brown’s lukewarm response to her letter. Brown responded that the Federal Bar Association was overwhelmed by other projects and responsibilities and did not have time to take up copyright theft.65 The issue of revising copyright laws came up repeatedly, not only in the FBA but also in Congress, throughout the 1940s. Yet nothing went past the point of committee hearings and debate. Scholar Albin Zak writes that “squaring both the practical and conceptual ramifications of sound recording with existing legal principles and statutes proved a thorny and persistent problem.”66 In 1955, reviewing the situation, Harvard law professor Benjamin Kaplan wrote that “copyright law, precisely because it has taken shape around the model of a book communicated to the public by multiplication of copies, has experienced difficulty, not to say frustration, with cases where communication is by performance or representation.” In his view, the problem was larger in scope than could be handled by individual court cases. “Better than any solution to the courts (or to the state legislatures acting severally),” he concluded, “would be a proper rewriting of the Copyright Code to take care of the question of phonograph records.” Unfortunately for Kennedy, this rewriting would not occur until the early 1970s.67

Although the courts and professional legal associations were slow to take up the task of challenging the piracy of artists’ ideas, Kennedy continued to push for recognition of the rights of musicians and other creative artists. In 1964, seeking a wider audience, Kennedy began writing a weekly column for a local black newspaper, the Queens Voice. The newspaper had a readership of close to four thousand people by the mid-1960s and focused much of its attention on political and social issues.68 Her mounting frustrations with the failings of the legal system, the government, and the media made them her most frequent targets.

(p.81) “We Have to Make Our Own News”: Fighting in the Press

Kennedy’s ire was aroused by repeatedly witnessing the duplicity and hypocrisy of the U.S. government, the mainstream media, and those self-satisfied members of the body politic whom she sarcastically termed “the good people.” Ever since starting law school, Kennedy had been disappointed to discover that the American ideals of fairness were meaningless in practice. Her work as a lawyer demonstrated that neutrality and objectivity were subject to the interpretation of those with the deepest pockets and were applied unevenly at their command and for their benefit. Through her weekly “Once Upon a Week” column, Kennedy indicted local, state, and federal governments for their failure to address systemic injustices ranging from police brutality to corporate embezzlement. These miscarriages of justice dovetailed with the mainstream media’s racist and biased journalism and those “good people” who tended to blame and criticize oppressed people for the offenses committed by government and the media.

Black feminist investigative journalist Ida B. Wells wrote numerous activist-oriented exposés during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that stirred public debate and pushed for changes in law and policy. Her articles on lynching challenged the mainstream media’s depictions of black men as rapists of white women.69 Kennedy’s columns presented a similar accounting of the social and political problems she found most glaring and a searing criticism of those she found were to blame. Like Wells, Kennedy understood that black people could not rely solely on the mainstream media’s coverage of them or of the issues they found most important. Instead, she argued, “we have to make our own news.”70

Kennedy’s column regularly critiqued the government, especially “government sponsored violence paid for by tax payers.” She wondered out loud why oppressed people were continually asked to be their “brother’s keeper” and to be nonviolent by a government that employed excessive and repeated violence on the shores of Cuba and in Vietnamese villages. For the U.S. government to resort so readily to violence but to arrest, condemn, and jail people of color when they fought back against their violent oppression was hypocritical. Kennedy was appalled by the CIA-sponsored attempt to overthrow Cuba’s anti-imperialist government, which had seized and nationalized American-owned companies and property in Cuba, and the government’s political and military intervention in Vietnam that almost thwarted the anticolonial movement against the French.71

Moreover, Kennedy questioned why local, state, and federal governments (p.82) expected black people and other oppressed groups to do nothing in response to church bombings and police brutality while their tax dollars financed the wars and counterintelligence programs waged by the military and the CIA. Kennedy’s column expressed outrage about the numerous bombings of black churches that occurred across the South, particularly that of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, where four little girls were killed while in Sunday school.72 Bombings of black churches and homes associated with civil rights activism frequently went unpunished or ignored by local and state authorities, who claimed they could not find the culprits.

At social functions in and around New York City in the early and mid-1960s, Kennedy’s conversations with whites repeatedly turned to the “Negroes.” Often, she explained, “I go to cocktail parties or a dinner party where I am the only Negro” in a room filled with whites.73 Inevitably, Kennedy recalled, some white man would turn to her and question her about the civil rights movement, asking why blacks were so angry and engaging in civil disobedience. “What do you think of Milton Galamison, Malcolm X, Brooklyn CORE, James Baldwin?” whites would always ask.74 Kennedy had been educating these folks for over a decade, so she understood their expectation that the lone black person at an otherwise all-white party would speak for their race. But those who did not know her often received an unexpected earful. Not only did she refuse to deplore black civil disobedience or regard black activists as criminals, but she also criticized the government and the media for fomenting racial hostility.

Kennedy’s columns for her black readership often detailed her sharp retorts to the white people she encountered. She redirected questions about black people’s civil disobedience and retaliatory violence toward public policy and media practices, arguing in one of her editorials that the actions—and inaction—of politicians, coupled with biased media coverage of the civil rights movement, triggered forceful dissent. “You add the sparks of smart aleck cracks from high placed government officials, and more sparks from a weakling helpless Congress, stymied by anti-social ‘filibusteros,’ and more sparks from ‘fizzling’ fruitless peaceful demonstrations and more sparks [from] radio and T.V. announcers, who characterized non-violent behavior as ‘failures’ and soon you have the making of anything from a grass-fire to a forest fire,” she wrote.75 Kennedy’s remarks turned the tables on media coverage that attributed all violence to blacks by demonstrating that government policies and statements aroused blacks’ anger.

In her writings, Kennedy derided the mainstream media for their yellow (p.83) journalism and blatant hypocrisy just as loudly as she criticized the government for its unethical and biased dealings. She repeatedly asked, “Whatever happened to responsible reporting? Not to mention journalism?” The media’s branding of peaceful demonstrations as ineffective because white officials did not immediately grant their demands was misleading and encouraged violent dissent, Kennedy argued.76

The mass media were Kennedy’s frequent target because of the numerous demeaning images they propagated, their biased coverage of black people, and their failure to report accurately on institutional racism. Articles in the Daily News detailing an alleged robbery of a white male Hofstra student sparked some of her most searing criticism of the press. The student reported to the Long Island police that “two black hoodlums” viciously mugged him. He went on to describe one of the alleged robbers as a “six-footer, weighing 200 pounds, [who] wore a grey straw hat and purple socks.” Kennedy reported that the Daily News printed a retraction once it was discovered that the student had made up the entire incident. In the follow-up story, the reporter stated forthrightly that the student had reported a false crime to police. But Kennedy was frustrated that the journalists gave “the story itself [a] … tender touch. While the news called the attackers ‘hoodlums,’ the student is now called ‘the young boy.’” Kennedy wondered why the student was not portrayed as a liar and a criminal. She was equally critical of the press for not seeking corroboration of the student’s account and for not being skeptical of the stereotypical description of the black man. Kennedy found the student’s account rather suspicious, perhaps because a black man wearing a straw hat and purple socks would resemble a minstrel caricature more closely than it would an actual person at the time.77 These racist images had been a staple of films, TV, and radio shows during the 1940s and 1950s.78

When Kennedy was at yet another party with white northern liberals and the conversation turned to the “Negroes,” Flo expressed her frustration with “all accounts that I have heard” that “contained direct or indirect denial of racial significance” or racism in the Daily News reporting. For Kennedy, “the sixty-four thousand dollar question then become[s], why refer to the race [of] the alleged assailants” at all or furnish unsubstantiated details without investigating their accuracy? The news coverage of this alleged robbery seemed especially biased, since journalists frequently “refer to ‘alleged discrimination’ in housing, ‘alleged segregation’ and ‘de facto’ segregation” despite overwhelming evidence that segregation and discrimination in housing were chronic systemic problems. Kennedy’s outrage at the Daily News specifically and at the media in general for their (p.84) racism fueled her editorial. In the end, she argued that the mass media made up “one very small aspect of a very large and complicated problem.”79 In this moment, Kennedy was attempting to understand the networks of institutional power and theorize the media’s role in the perpetuation of injustice. Like biased courts and inept governmental agencies, the media professed a standard of objectivity and fairness that they repeatedly violated.

Kennedy did not confine her criticism to institutions that wielded power and influence. She also used her column as a vehicle to raise readers’ awareness of numerous issues that she regarded as urgent and in need of debate and action. In the process, she argued against commonly held viewpoints that, she believed, promoted the acceptance of inequality among ordinary people, including those who were oppressed. For example, black and white “good people” who clung to holier-than-thou religious attitudes ignored and even implicitly supported injustice by failing to address the reality of people’s lives.

Having grown up in a home where religion-based norms of respectability were flouted and sexual curiosity was encouraged, Kennedy was conscious of the ways in which religion helped to crush individuals’ choices, especially for women. Kennedy’s concern about a woman’s control of her body and the availability of legal abortion took center stage in her May 22, 1964, article. The piece responded to the class disparities in the availability of medical abortions. After watching a “frustratingly interesting discussion on abortion” on a WNBC program called Open Mind, Kennedy critiqued “the good people” who held onto “old-fashioned religious views” about women’s duty to bear children. In contrast, she supported the right of all women, and especially poor women, to have access to abortions performed legally and safely in a hospital.80

In the mid-1960s, Open Mind was briefly moderated by historian Eric Goldman, who served as a special policy advisor to President Johnson and taught at Princeton University.81 Kennedy was impressed with Goldman’s attempt to “clarify national and international outlines” of the abortion debate, as well as with the guest feminist sociologist Alice Rossi and Alan Guttmacher, gynecologist and president of Planned Parenthood. Kennedy called the other two guests, whom she did not name, “the good people” who “hung on to old-fashioned religious views.”82 She deplored one speaker’s insistence that “no matter what the social institution or the physical condition of the mother or child, abortions should be kept at an absolute minimum” as unrealistic, given the realities of impoverished women’s lives. Kennedy pointed out the contradiction posed by those who (p.85) would deny legal abortions to poor women but then “cluck their tongues and shake their heads … at the illegitimate children on welfare.” She wondered how anyone could ask these women to carry children they could not afford to raise and then judge them when they did so and needed financial support. Kennedy found their statements irrational and illogical. Indeed, she considered the abortion debate a complete “mess” and insisted that “something’s got to give.”83

Kennedy described how Rossi and Guttmacher countered these arguments and “helped bring the discussion down the ladder of abstraction where the anti-abortionists seemed most comfortable.” Moreover, Kennedy underlined the point “that the more prosperous person had little difficulty obtaining an abortion” legally and safely. As “with most things ‘illegal,’” “rules were bent” for the privileged.84 Many well-respected hospitals performed abortions for married women who could afford to pay a psychiatrist to say that her unwanted pregnancy represented a threat to her mental health. A psychiatrist’s recommendation that a woman needed a therapeutic abortion to protect her physical or mental well-being had become an acceptable justification for the practice in the 1940s and 1950s. An analysis of abortions performed in New York hospitals revealed that a fifth of all the abortions were induced for psychiatric reasons.85 The panelists on Open Mind underscored, however, that the “less privileged, who can’t afford a psychiatrist to support a therapeutic abortion in a hospital,” were denied access to the procedure. Kennedy emphasized the hypocrisy and double standard of the “good people” in society and the district attorneys who continually policed and chastised poor women for seeking illegal abortions while hospitals that performed therapeutic abortions for wealthier families received little to no rebuke.

“It Seems to Me That What They Need Is a Few Bullet Proof Vests”: Fighting in Political Organizations

In the summer of 1964, Kennedy was one of several black and white women from New York who participated in Wednesdays in Mississippi (WIMS), an organization that provided material and moral support to civil rights organizers in the South. WIMS grew out of a phone call that Dorothy Height, president of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW), received from Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) member Prathia Hall. Hall told Height about the women and girls who were repeatedly arrested when attempting to register voters and once inside the Dallas County jails faced beatings and sexual assaults by the officers.86 (p.86) Hall hoped that the NCNW would help protect the female protesters from abuse at the hands of Mississippi officers who were violently defending white supremacy.87

The NCNW and predominantly white organizations such as the Young Women’s Christian Association, the National Council of Catholic Women, the National Council of Jewish Women, and Church Women United met in Selma, Alabama, and Atlanta, Georgia, to brainstorm about ways they could assist SNCC and Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) organizers. In 1962 SNCC began working with COFO, an umbrella group that united several civil rights organizations in an effort to register black voters in the state of Mississippi.88 White activist Polly Spiegel Cowan of the Citizens Committee for Children of New York was from a wealthy family of German Jews in the Midwest. She had become radicalized in the 1930s and had a radio show in New York City in the 1950s. Cowan became especially concerned about the potential abuse of COFO workers when the organization announced that during the summer of 1964, hundreds of upper-and middle-class white students from the North would travel to Mississippi in hopes of drawing national attention to the racial violence in the South. Cowan’s own sons were planning to participate, and she wanted to find ways to help lessen the violent hostility that COFO organizers would encounter.

Cowan suggested that the appearance of a small team of prominent middle-and upper-class northern white and black women, what she termed the “Cadillac crowd,” could have a “quieting influence” on white antagonism and could perhaps help to “build bridges between black and white women.”89 WIMS leadership decided that several small groups of women would travel to Mississippi during Freedom Summer as “sensitive interpreters” and serve as a “ministry of presence.”90 Each week throughout the summer of 1964, the interracial group of women would arrive in Jackson on Tuesday evening and then drive to a smaller Mississippi town early Wednesday and finally depart on Thursday. The NCNW and the other organizations agreed to help coordinate and finance the plan.

During the summer of 1964, seven teams of middle-class women from northern cities such as New York, Boston, and Chicago traveled to places such as Ruleville and Jackson, Mississippi.91 Kennedy’s team included four white women: Claudia Heckscher, Trude Lash, Frances Haight, and Marjorie Dammann.92 Marie Barksdale, the president of the black sorority Delta Sigma Theta, was the other black woman on the team. All of the women fit the profile of middle-class prominence and respectability that the WIMS leadership hoped to establish. Most were professionals whose (p.87) husbands held notable positions in New York City. With the exception of Kennedy, who was explicit about having no religious affiliation, all of the women were Christians or Jews. The WIMS women, like Kennedy, were in their forties and fifties; all had attended college or preparatory schools; and most held advanced or professional degrees as well. Their activism on various community boards and social welfare programs serving women and children of all races made them ideal candidates for this mission.93

The WIMS team left New York on Tuesday, August 4th, in the early afternoon and were greeted by the WIMS staff in Jackson early that evening. Not long after they arrived, they heard that the bodies of three missing COFO workers—James Chaney, Michael (Mickey) Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman—had been found in a ravine a little over an hour outside of Jackson. The young organizers had been missing since June 21 and were last seen when police officers arrested them for allegedly speeding. What was discovered later but was not known at the time was that the officers had waited until nightfall and released them on the side of the road to a mob of Klansmen. The outcry over the missing civil rights workers, which was louder than usual since two of them were white, forced the federal government to take notice.94 Thus, on their first night in Mississippi, the WIMS women bore witness to local communities’ initial responses to the brutal murders.

Marie Barksdale, a member of the WIMS “negro team,” noted that on “the night that they found the three bodies,” she observed “the reaction and the pathos” firsthand.95 The WIMS women said that most of the black people they met, especially those from the rural areas, were not surprised that the missing COFO workers had been murdered. “We’ve known it and we’ve lived with this knowledge for six weeks,” they said. The WIMS women described many in the black community as both resigned and deeply shaken: “The reaction was … now everything that … we believed and really felt [we] knew had happened.” For many blacks in Mississippi, finding the bodies made their everyday reality “common knowledge all over the world.”96

Some of the white southern women the WIMS “white team” met believed that the murders and other violence against blacks were simply false reports from northerners. One of the white southern women “even agree[d] that there had been killings,” but when pressed by the WIMS team to describe who she believed to be responsible, the Jackson woman retorted tersely, “Who does these things in the North?” To her way of thinking, the answer was simple: the murders were the actions of a few “errant hoodlums,” not reflective of the law or the way of life in Mississippi.97

(p.88) The WIMS leadership did everything in its power to ensure the safety of the northern women who traveled south. In order to be selected, the women had to agree to obey southern racial protocol to avoid drawing unnecessary attention to themselves and the WIMS mission. As a result, Kennedy walked off the plane with Barksdale by her side and acted as if she did not know the white women on the team. For three days, the black and white women lived separately and often traveled in separate cars. Black women lodged with members of Jackson’s black community, while the white women lodged together at a segregated, Klan-owned hotel.98 Dorothy Height described following southern practices as a strategy designed to protect the women and widen their organizational reach: “We would have to go into tension-filled communities quietly … [and] anonymously,” and “even when our most deeply cherished principles were violated in the process,” the Wednesdays in Mississippi organizers worked “with respect for local custom.”99

Local customs required that the white women behave like proper “ladies,” while black women on the team were supposed to dress in the way self-respecting southern black women did when they attended church, wearing dresses, white gloves, and hats. Kennedy, who by 1964 had already begun to shed her professional skirts and dresses in favor of slacks, was now being asked to assume that attire again. “Wednesdays in Mississippi ladies” were coached to explain to anyone who asked or was within earshot that they were in Mississippi simply as a “ministry of presence.”100 Southern and northern traditions alike encouraged women, especially women of means, to minister to the poor and downtrodden. WIMS women utilized the cover of acceptable female behavior in hopes that their ladylike appearance and their assumption of acceptable racial and gender demeanor would permit them to go unnoticed and unmolested.101 As scholar Debbie Harwell argues, “Black and white team members employed the intersecting identities of their gender, class, and age to open doors that otherwise would have remained closed to them. In this way, following southern protocol in public served as both their vehicle and their protection.”102

On their first night in Jackson, all of the women quietly observed a large civil rights meeting at a local church where black preachers and community members debated a boycott of Barq’s beverage company for failing to hire blacks in executive positions and asked for volunteers to help integrate the Jackson public school system.103 The WIMS women later reported that tension was high as residents disagreed with the preachers who held leadership positions about when and if the boycott should end.104 Predictably, (p.89) there was also some trepidation among the crowd when the discussion turned to having their six-year-old children become the first students to integrate Mississippi’s elementary schools. The WIMS team was aware that their presence at the front of the church affected the proceedings and led some organizers to be more reserved in their words and actions.105 Despite the disturbance their presence no doubt caused, they recalled witnessing a black Jackson community prepared and eager to negotiate strategies and tactics and keen on pressing their ministers to follow the community’s leadership.

The next morning the WIMS women rose early and traveled separately to the rural town of Ruleville to observe a COFO-organized Freedom School. Kennedy and some of the WIMS women met with Fannie Lou Hamer, a SNCC organizer from Ruleville. The forty-seven-year-old Hamer had worked most of her life as a sharecropper in and around Ruleville. She had joined SNCC two years before and since that time had helped to register voters throughout the South. Hamer was no doubt one of the SNCC women Prathia Hall had referred to when she approached Dorothy Height for help in protecting those who had been abused after their arrests. During the summer of 1963, when Hamer was traveling back from a voting workshop with other SNCC activists, they were forced off a Trailways bus and arrested.106 Hamer greeted the WIMS women and then detailed numerous incidents of widespread discrimination in Mississippi. Kennedy and the other women sat and listened as Hamer described her brutal beating by two black prisoners who had been ordered to do so by a white state patrolman. Perhaps she also told them that the white officer had hoisted up her dress while the men circled around her and continued pounding her body into the jailhouse floor. Ten days after recounting the incident to Kennedy and the WIMS women, Hamer would sit and “report to the credential committee [of the Democratic National Convention] in almost the same words she reported” to the WIMS team the horrific beating she had experienced in Mississippi when attempting to register blacks to vote.107

During Kennedy’s time in Mississippi she did not operate as a lawyer but rather as an investigative journalist listening to “atrocity stories” and recording narratives of the civil rights movement for her column.108 While Kennedy and the other women were instructed to protect the names and identities of the women and men they met, WIMS leaders hoped that the northern women would return to their home cities and bear witness to the goings-on in Mississippi. WIMS women were expected to draw attention to the COFO workers’ attempts to integrate schools and register voters. Height and Cowan anticipated that the northern women would influence (p.90) others to become active supporters and donors to civil rights organizations. In September 1964, after Freedom Summer ended and all of the WIMS groups returned to their home cities, Kennedy was free to publish her observations about Mississippi and to encourage support of the movement and organizers.109

Kennedy also continued conversations with her team members and WIMS leaders about the ways in which northern women could assist the civil rights movement. Weeks after their return, the WIMS women had vivid and troubling memories of the numerous stories they had heard of violence meted out by white employers and police officers against activists as well as of the poor segregated schools that they had observed. Black Mississippians repeatedly told them of the brutal beatings they received from whites when they attempted to register to vote and threats by the white superintendent to “fire any Negro school teacher who registered his or her own child for a desegregated class.”110 WIMS individual reports detailed at great length the various legal injustices that the women on the teams collectively observed or were told about. Three items represent the dozens of injustices the women encountered:

Item—A mother and seven children receives $62 per month (either ADC [Aid to Dependent Children] or Public Assistance …). But, then when the authorities found that she was getting some food and clothes at the Freedom School, they reduced her allotment $18 [each month]….

Item—The state provides $60 per Negro pupil, $150 for white pupils….

Item—A Negro woman, illegitimately pregnant a second time, may be sterilized without her consent.111

Although Kennedy and the other women came to the South with knowledge of its regime of white supremacy and the complicity of the Mississippi state government in refusing to obey federal law and desegregate, they were still shocked by what they witnessed. While Kennedy recorded the “horror stories,” her experiences of connecting with black civil rights organizers and working in an interracial group left her with an array of other impressions about the civil rights struggle in Mississippi and the imperative necessity for northern white women to confront racism not only in the South but in the North as well.112 Kennedy’s retelling of her experiences in the South differed substantially from those of the WIMS leadership. Both at that time and in later years, Dorothy Height and Patty Cowan focused on the alliance building between white northerners and white southerners that took place during their trips to Mississippi. They (p.91) also noted the bridges built between black southerners and both white and black northerners.113 Yet while Kennedy found women’s interracial alliances built on antiracism extremely useful, her own accounts reveal that she was most interested in troubling the falsehood of white northerners’ racial tolerance and acceptance. Height had also mentioned the importance of understanding and challenging racism in the North, but this was not WIMS’s major focus. Furthermore, Kennedy’s description highlighted the various ways in which black southerners coped with and challenged white hostility.

Like Cowan and Height, Kennedy was impressed by COFO workshops that explained nonviolent resistance. During one workshop, she witnessed organizers showing black men and women how to protect themselves from police attacks when attempting to vote. Kennedy described how activists were “supposed to bend or tuck [their] head … to keep from getting badly hurt.” They were also told not to respond to police goading.114 Cowan was especially inspired by her experiences of talking with moderate southern white women about the need for black people to gain their rights. Height echoed Cowan’s attitude when she described Dorothy Rogers Tilly, a white woman who combated racism in the South.115

Yet Kennedy was much more fascinated by stories of armed middle-class black civil rights organizers. She was intrigued by her hostess on the WIMS trip, Thelma Sanders, a civil rights leader in Jackson who had worked with Medgar Evers of the NAACP before he was assassinated.116 Kennedy described her as the proprietor of a rather large dress shop with a lovely family and a very nice house with “air conditioning throughout.” But one feature of Sanders’s home quickly caught Kennedy’s attention: it “had a big gun leaning against the front door, a big gun.” She described seeing guns during several of her visits with other black Mississippians as well.117

The presence of nonviolent civil rights organizing alongside armed self-reliance demonstrated the reality of southern black militancy. Some black activists who espoused nonviolent tactics for the mass movement were nonetheless prepared to defend themselves against whites who sought to murder them. Furthermore, Kennedy’s descriptions support Timothy Tyson’s argument that during the civil rights era, independent black politics, black cultural pride, and armed self-reliance operated in tension and in tandem with legal efforts and nonviolent protests in the quest for African American freedom.118 Although at the time Kennedy seemed a bit perplexed by the conjuncture of these two realities, her choice to retell her WIMS story both by carefully detailing activists’ training in nonviolent (p.92) resistance and by highlighting the fact that some also had weapons and were prepared to use them helped to portray the conditions in the South through a more complicated and accurate lens. Kennedy’s descriptions ran contrary to those of many of her northern white and black counterparts. Height’s and Cowan’s accounts focused primarily on blacks’ nonviolence, interracial alliances, and white northerners’ benevolence. The WIMS leaders’ accounts often centered on the importance of northern white women talking to southern white women and on finding ways to support blacks engaged in passive resistance in Mississippi. Kennedy’s descriptions, in contrast, did not emphasize whites’ progressive attitudes, interracial sisterhood, or blacks’ nonviolence.

Kennedy’s frustration with the limits of this cross-regional interracial coalition led her to voice her concerns to the group: “On the way back on the plane I alienated them all by saying in my opinion racism wasn’t that different in the South.”119 She adamantly maintained that the prevalent assumption that the South was an exception to the national racial norm was seriously wrong and that reinforcing it by appealing to white northerners’ self-conception that they were racially unbiased and that their society was a model of tolerance was damaging as well as ineffective. WIMS was one of Kennedy’s first major experiences in collaborating with both white and black women against racism, and she recognized the potential of these types of coalitions. Nonetheless, she insisted that interracial groups be honest partnerships that addressed the full scope of white supremacy in the United States and not simply scapegoat the South. This truth was not something that the other team members were prepared to hear, but she persisted. Even after they returned, Kennedy continued to tell them that many of the forms of racism they witnessed were endemic to the North as well. She pressed the group to imagine challenging racism at home, not just in the South.

Kennedy’s disagreements with the team extended to the type of education she believed that Mississippi blacks and COFO workers needed in order to challenge and overturn racism in the South. Some WIMS women argued that the young organizers needed training in regard to appropriate dress, proper hygiene, and suitable comportment so as not to appear to white southerners like unkempt beatniks. Another WIMS woman proposed that the “best … most promising young” black children, particularly a black girl they had met in Ruleville, should be brought to New York to attend college.120 Kennedy was incensed at the suggestion that a New York education would help the civil rights struggle in Mississippi. “Education has now been shown to be an unsatisfactory answer,” she fumed. (p.93) “I believe it is more important for people like her to stay on the scene and broaden their power.” Kennedy had heard of far too many educated middle-class people in the United States and abroad who were a part of the “hold back crowd.” The suggestion that WIMS build an education project that took young black people away from their community was wholly “incomplete and thoroughly unsatisfactory.” “It isn’t education they need alone,” she argued.121

Challenging their presumptions, Kennedy asked the other women to tell her what training black Mississippians really needed and to describe how giving some of them a college education in the North would help the movement. When the other women could not come to any agreement on what they meant, Marjorie Dammann explained to Kennedy, “It would be like someone going to the law court unless they knew what the law was.”122 Dammann’s comment revealed her presumption that black southerners who were not formally educated did not understand the law, even though they constantly witnessed it being applied to their detriment and knew full well how difficult it was to assert the rights to which they thought they were constitutionally entitled. Perhaps she hoped that, as an attorney, Kennedy would appreciate her argument that stressed formal training. Dammann was entirely unaware that Kennedy had found the practice of law in and of itself to be a useless means of achieving justice. She did not hesitate to tell Dammann as much: “I think [if] the few that went to law court didn’t know the rules you might get a little justice…. I think lawyers are the best people in the world … but they know too much about procedure” and far too little about justice.123

Kennedy continued to argue with the team over the suggestion that the COFO workers be taught how to present themselves so as not to offend white southern folks. “As far as I am concerned if these people have no money, if they have no facilities, if they are living with people who are rural, and don’t have bathing facilities, it doesn’t worry me” if they wore overalls or smelled.124 She did not see how enforcing middle-class standards of dress and comportment would help the movement, protect COFO workers’ lives, or ensure the stability of their relationships in the black community where they worked. Historian Tanisha Ford contends that the longer black women in SNCC “labored among working-class members of the South, the more likely it was that they would abandon their neatly coiffed processed hairstyles, dresses, cardigan sweaters, and modestly heeled pumps for short-cropped natural hairstyles, denim overalls, and blue jeans. In adopting the dress of African American sharecroppers, these women enacted a performance of their own in which they rejected (p.94) middle-class notions of black female respectability and illustrated how clothing could be used to put on and take off particular ethnic, class, and gender identities.”125

Although Kennedy wore the appropriate female attire during this trip, as she did for her courtroom performances, she rejected the idea that middle-class costumes would provide real protection for black or white civil rights workers. Like black people as a group, they were targets of violence no matter the uniform. Rather than an armor of neat dresses and white gloves or crisp chinos and white shirts, Kennedy pointedly argued, “it seems to me that what they need is a few bullet proof vests.”126

Kennedy’s disagreements with the black and white women in her group, while impassioned, were neither lasting nor alienating, and some of the WIMS women reconsidered their suggestions in the face of Kennedy’s chiding. All accounts agree that the WIMS members shared the goals of supporting the Mississippi movement and ending Jim Crow, but they diverged about what strategies to adopt. WIMS represented Kennedy’s first experience in an interracial coalition of women that aimed to fight racism. As a member of WIMS she learned the value of an alliance that was majority white but was spearheaded by black women and had black women in key leadership positions.127

Kennedy made valuable connections with black civil rights organizers in Mississippi. Her host in Jackson, Thelma Sanders, benefited from that relationship after her home was firebombed three months later. The summer of 1964 was an especially harsh season for black Mississippians and COFO workers. By late August, “four project volunteers had been killed, four others critically wounded, 80 physically beaten, and 1000 arrested. During the Freedom Summer, 37 black churches were firebombed and burned, and 30 black-owned homes and businesses were destroyed.”128 With the help of Louis McKay, Kennedy sponsored an event at a Manhattan club on Halloween weekend to help Sanders and “other victims of terrorists” rebuild their lives. Speakers from Mississippi were invited to give an account of what had transpired there since Freedom Summer.129

Kennedy’s organizing efforts within political groups and in the press intensified after her return from Mississippi. She began hosting a thirty-minute WLIB radio program on Sunday nights called Opinions, in which she debated issues that were similar to those she raised in her newspaper column. Her writing and radio show challenged police brutality and gave a spotlight to both black nationalist and socialist views. Flo often challenged the notion that men were the primary spokespersons on behalf of these topics; for example, she invited Dorothy Pitman (Hughes) of African (p.95) Americans against the Vietnam War to debate black leadership and white backlash with Youth Against War and Fascism’s Joan Hamilton.130 As Kennedy’s organizing efforts increased, so too did the FBI’s surveillance. The FBI made note of the broad scope of her activities, from her radio show and column through her participation in WIMS to her role as an organizer of the Committee of Concerned Mothers, a group founded by black women to help support Malcolm X’s family after his assassination, as well as her attendance at meetings of the Workers World Party (WWP) and Youth Against War and Fascism (YAWF).131

The presence of a range of left-wing groups on this list shows that Kennedy refused to adhere to the political orthodoxies that fueled sectarian divisions. One informer who was active in YAWF, which was affiliated with the radical WWP, described Kennedy as an “outspoken … liberal” who attended the group’s meetings but said that “YAWF is cautious” about upsetting her or turning her away “since she is a helpful middle class Negro attorney, who has a wide variety of friends in many circles.”132

By 1965 Kennedy’s political interests were sprawling and her spheres of influence were expanding beyond the circle of predominantly white male lawyers with whom she had associated since law school. Kennedy was becoming known for the extent of her reach into diverse political groups and middle-class circles as well as for her frank opinions. She was actively and deeply engaged in a quest for a comprehensive political theory and strategy. But Kennedy did not find what she was looking for in any of these groups since each espoused a set of ideas that she regarded as incomplete. Instead, she had to work out these political questions for herself. Despite Kennedy’s successful practice and growing cachet in political and middle-class circles, however, she was still seen as an interloper in the mostly white New York City neighborhood where she lived and worked.

“Flo Was Different after the Arrest”: Fighting Police Brutality

Sometime in 1960 Kennedy leased an apartment on East Forty-Eighth Street. This central Manhattan location served as both her home and the location of her law firm at a time when her relationships with her husband and legal partners were crumbling.133 On August 9, 1965, after five years of living and working in midtown, while she was walking home from a doctor’s appointment she noticed a police barrier on Madison Avenue. Apparently there had been a gas main explosion, and the police and firemen were attempting to secure the area. Kennedy waited behind the barricade until she witnessed three white men being allowed to pass by the (p.96) same policeman who had blocked her.134 She proceeded to show the officer her identification with her address and explained that she was “hurrying home to take medicine for an eye infection,” but her words did not persuade the officer that she lived in the upper-class neighborhood and should be allowed to pass just like her white neighbors. After seeing “15 other men, all white,” being allowed through after they told the policeman that they were going to Grand Central Station, she was furious. She waited until the cop had turned his back and another group of men and a bus were being allowed to pass with the officer’s permission, and then she walked right alongside them. Instantly a team of policemen surrounded her and pushed her into the patrol car. Angry and humiliated, Kennedy loudly protested her arrest. She questioned them about the double standard in allowing the white men to pass while forbidding her to do so and reiterated that she was a lawyer and lived in the neighborhood. The officers reported that she became “loud and boisterous” and resisted being taken to the precinct headquarters.135 At the station she was charged with resisting arrest and obstruction of justice.136 Kennedy described the brutality and humiliation she endured: “I was stripped naked by a policewoman. My clothing was searched, and I was even made to squat naked to see if there was anything concealed internally.”137

For Kennedy, the refusal of the police to allow her to go home while others were permitted to do so and then the arrest and strip search happened for only one reason: “It was a situation of old fashioned discrimination,” she contended; “in my opinion the real situation was that they didn’t think I lived in the area.”138 After all, black women lawyers were rare, and her professional title did not outweigh the fact that she was a black woman in an elite white neighborhood. Kennedy’s resistance to the officer’s authority no doubt served as confirmation of his impression that she was a criminal and threatening. Her smart summer suit, slightly hobbled walk, and middle-aged appearance (she was forty-nine at the time) did nothing to protect her. Indeed, she argued, “the weaker they think you are, the worse they treat you.”139 Having practiced law for over fourteen years, waged her own battles against discrimination, and joined organizations to combat discrimination, Kennedy was not weak, nor was she weakened by this experience of police brutality.

That night Kennedy left the police department visibly shaken and fuming, her sister Joyce remembered; “she was on a mission.”140 Calling her sisters, Kennedy railed against the police. Then she called every reporter she could think of and described the incident in detail. Three days later Kennedy’s story was covered in the Amsterdam News, a Harlem-based (p.97) black newspaper with a national audience.141 Kennedy no doubt announced her arrest on her radio program as well. Despite her numerous encounters with racism throughout her life, she was taken aback by her arrest. In court, she was charged with obstructing justice and resisting arrest. Despite a vigorous defense led by her lawyer and Kennedy’s own media blitz, which continued into the fall, she was convicted of obstructing justice, although the other charge was dismissed. For years she continued to appeal her conviction, but all her appeals were denied.142 At one point Kennedy even announced that she was suing the police department for $500,000 in damages for brutalizing her.143

Kennedy had come to understand that being a lawyer and “becoming somebody” could not shield her from oppression. She had, of course, known that intellectually long before the arrest, but that day in August of 1965—when she was forced into a police car in front of her white neighbors and had to remove her pants and underclothing, spread her legs, and squat in front of a police officer, all because she was determined to walk alongside her white male counterparts—drove home the meaning of racism and gave it new emotional significance. Her sister Joyce recalled, “Flo was different after the arrest.”144

The change in Flo was palpable. To Joyce, Flo appeared even “more impatient” with the coercive power of racism. Over the years, Joyce had witnessed her sister as a fighter in a range of battles. Kennedy’s work as a lawyer, her education in various groups, the numerous speakers on her radio program, and her conversations with organizers at meetings all reflected a profound course in radical movements and political philosophy. Kennedy had attempted to “strike a blow” against what was commonly referred to as the establishment through the law, through journalism, and in political organizations, yet no movement or organization had won her full commitment. The burgeoning Black Power movement in the mid-1960s, however, would give her a frame for her various ideas and for her increased impatience with white supremacy. Its frontal attack on the state, relentless critique of racist images of blacks in the media, and commitment to black leadership, self-defense, and self-determination for black communities made the call for Black Power in 1966 uniquely compelling.


(4.) Emil K. Ellis to Florynce Kennedy, February 28, 1961, folder 18, box 1; Louis McKay to Mr. Halperin, October 6, 1961, folder 3, box 2, BHC.

(7.) Florynce Kennedy to Whom It Concerns, May 5, 1946, FKP; Florynce R. Kennedy to Whom It May Concern, August 11, 1961, folder 18, box 1, BHC.

(9.) “Notice to the Trade,” Variety, November 23, 1960, 52; Estate Disbursement, November 1960–July 1961, Charlie Parker folder, box, 6, FKP.

(13.) Kennedy, “Color Me Flo” original transcript, box 5, tape 21, p. 6, FKP; Kennedy, Color Me Flo, 52.

(20.) Many documents in the Billie Holiday Collection detail Kennedy’s work to safeguard Louis McKay’s share of Billie Holiday’s profits. Several folders and documents are mislabeled Louis McKay’s writings when in fact they are Kennedy’s legal notes and writings. See Florynce Kennedy to Louis McKay, December 31, 1963, folder 18, box 1; and Florynce Kennedy to Associated Booking Corporation, October 12, 1962, folder 18, box 1, both in BHC.

(21.) Kennedy, Color Me Flo, 42; Chase Manhattan bank statements for February 1962, March 1963, and April 1966, estate of Eleanora McKay, folder 22, box 1, BHC.

(25.) Ibid., 49.

(26.) Ibid., 52.

(28.) Parker, My Life in E-Flat, 40–57; “Chan Parker, 74, Known as Jazzman’s Wife,” New York Times, September 19, 1999.

(30.) Stollman interview with author.

(31.) Petition to the Surrogate Court of New York, May 11, 1961, index no. A.670/1956, Florynce Kennedy for Doris Parker; “Yardbird’s Widow Challenged,” Jet, January 25, 1962, 58.

(32.) Stollman interview with author.

(34.) Parker, My Life in E-Flat; Chan Parker to Doris Parker, date unknown, FKP. Chan argued that Doris and Charlie’s marriage in Mexico was not valid. She also alleged that Doris tried to divorce Charlie, and finally she questioned whether Parker had ever divorced his first wife and the mother of his eldest son.

(35.) “Inside Stuff—Music,” Variety, January 11, 1961, 48.

(36.) “Notice of Claim: In the Matter of Charles Parker,” September 10, 1962, Surrogate Court of New York.

(38.) “Inside Stuff—Music”; Stollman interview with author.

(39.) Stollman interview with author.

(40.) Louis McKay to Maely Dufty of Jazz Day magazine, June 19, 1961, folder 2, box 3, BHC.

(41.) McKay v. Columbia Broadcasting System, Inc., James E. Allen, Claire Roskam, John Butler, Carmen De Lavallade and William Dufty, 324 F. 2nd 762 (2d Cir. 1963), “Legal Proceedings McKay/Holiday Estates vs. Columbia Broadcast Co. 1962” folder, box 1, BHC.

(p.246) (43.) Blackburn, With Billie, 236. Years later, during Bill and Maely Dufty’s divorce proceedings, Bill accused Maely of having an affair with Lou McKay.

(44.) Stollman interview with author.

(45.) Opening Statement by Kenneth A. Cox, Chief Broadcast Bureau, Federal Communications Commission, Public Proceedings in Overall Program Inquiry: Docket No. 12782, June 20, 1961, folder “Piracy of Ideas,” box 12.5–12.6, PFK; Kennedy notes, June 23, 1961, The Ann Sothern Show, box 12.5–12.6, PFK; Commerce: Business, Patents, Trademarks and Foreign Trade.

(47.) Kennedy, “Color Me Flo” original transcript, box 5, tape 21, p. 8, FKP.

(49.) Alexander Rauso to Florynce Kennedy, May 24, 1960, box 3, FKP; Florynce Kennedy to Gentleman re: FCC Inquiry into Network Activity in Television, January 27, 1962, box 12.5–12.6, FKP; “NBC, MCA Defendants in 100G Suit over Use of ‘Suspicion’ Title,” Variety, April 19, 1961, 50.

(50.) Florynce R. Kennedy to Joseph E. Quinn, January 3, 1962, folder “Piracy of Ideas,” box 12.5–12.6, PFK.

(51.) Flo Kennedy notes, June 23, 1961, folder “Piracy of Ideas,” box 12.5–12.6, PFK; Bennet Olan to Florynce Kennedy, February 24, 1960, box 12.5–12.6, PFK; Florynce Kennedy to Bennet Olan, April 4, 1960, box 12.5–12.6, PFK.

(52.) Florynce Kennedy to Peter Megargee Brown, October 13, 1961, box 8, FKP.

(58.) Ibid., 2.

(59.) Ibid., 234.

(60.) Kennedy to Peter Megargee Brown, October 13, 1961.

(61.) Kennedy to Quinn, January 3, 1962. The phrase “piracy of ideas” has been in use since the nineteenth century. Lawyers used the term to discuss copyright disputes between visual artists. Underdown, The Law of Art Copyright, 183–84. Kennedy used the term to refer specifically to corporations’ theft of the ideas and work of individual artists.

(63.) Kennedy to Peter Megargee Brown, October 13, 1961.

(65.) Kennedy to Peter Megargee Brown, October 13, 1961.

(67.) Quoted in ibid.

(68.) Directory of U.S. Negro Newspapers and Magazines.

(70.) Kennedy, unorganized notes, FKP.

(71.) Rowland Evans Jr., “Cuba Fiasco Heightens Pressure for CIA Rein: White House Disturbed Give Candid Accounts,” Washington Post, May 3, 1961, A19; Statler, Replacing France, 183–218.

(73.) Florynce Kennedy, “Once Upon a Week,” Queens Voice, June 5, 1964.

(74.) Milton Galamison was a Presbyterian pastor in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. In 1964 and 1965 he was also the chair of the Citywide Committee for School Integration. He led numerous boycotts and sit-ins challenging segregation in New York and was frequently arrested. The tactics the Brooklyn chapter of CORE used included dumping trash on the steps of Borough Hall to protest inadequate garbage collection in black neighborhoods. In 1964, Brooklyn CORE activists targeted the opening day of the 1964 World’s Fair with a “stall-in” that tied up traffic. See Purnell, Fighting Jim Crow.

(75.) Florynce Kennedy, “Once Upon a Week,” Queens Voice, July 3, 1964.

(76.) Ibid., May 22, 1964.

(79.) Kennedy, “Once Upon a Week,” Queens Voice, May 5, 1964.

(80.) Ibid., May 22, 1964.

(81.) Wolfgang Saxon, “Eric F. Goldman, 73, a Historian and Presidential Consultant, Dies,” New York Times, February 20, 1989, A16.

(82.) Kennedy, “Once Upon a Week,” Queens Voice, May 22, 1964.

(88.) Ibid., 168. For a more detailed discussion of Height’s opinion of interracial coalitions, see Height, Step by Step with Interracial Groups.

(89.) Harwell, “Wednesdays in Mississippi,” 634; Mrs. Richard Dammann, Report Team 5, p. 11, NCNWP. See also Harwell, Wednesdays in Mississippi.

(90.) Harwell, “Wednesdays in Mississippi,” 617; “WIMS Team #5 1964, Mississippi Review, Team 5 New York to Ruleville,” transcript and audiotapes 001-S15-ss5-f18-S1, 001-S15-ss5-f18-S2, and 001-S15-ss5-f18-S3, NCNWP. Please note that the NCNWP transcriptions were incomplete at the time of my research and some of Kennedy’s comments were not correctly identified by the transcriber. Future researchers should listen to the audiotapes.

(91.) By 1963, according to Cowan’s daughter, Trude Lash was working with Pauli Murray to promote women’s participation in the civil rights movement. She was an anti-Nazi German immigrant (her maiden name was Wenzel) who, through her husband, became friends with Eleanor Roosevelt and later worked with her at the UN. She, like Cowan, was identified with the New York Citizens Committee for Children. Marjorie Spiegel Dammann was a professional social worker who established agencies for troubled families in Westchester County. She married Richard Weil Dammann, a Harvard Law School graduate, in August 1935; Herald Statesman (Yonkers, New York), August 24, 1935. It is unclear whether Polly Spiegel Cowan was a relative of Marjorie Spiegel Dammann, but it is clear that they had a lot in common as Jews of German descent who grew up in Chicago and its suburbs, went to Seven Sisters colleges, lived in New York City, and were advocates of social services for children and civil rights.

(p.248) (92.) See the registration forms for Wednesdays in Mississippi: Marie C. Barksdale, Mrs. Richard W. Dammann, Frances H. Haight, and Florynce Kennedy, all in NCNWP.

(97.) The next summer, several white southern women offered their homes to the northern WIMS members.

(99.) Ibid., 634.

(101.) Ibid., 618.

(108.) Florynce R. Kennedy, “Once Upon a Week,” Queens Voice, November 13, 1964, 14.

(109.) Marjorie Spiegel Dammann’s Final Report, Team 5, NCNWP.

(113.) Kennedy, “Color Me Flo” original transcript, box 5, tape18, p. 1, FKP.

(115.) For more information on Thelma Sanders and her other work in Woman Power Unlimited, see Morris, “Local Women and the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi,” 200.

(116.) Kennedy, “Color Me Flo” original transcript, box 5, tape 18, p. 1, FKP.

(118.) Kennedy, “Color Me Flo” original transcript, box 5, tape 18, p. 1, FKP.

(126.) Dick Schaap, “Secret Project in Mississippi: Interracial Meetings of Women,” New York Herald and Tribune, August 30, 1964; Height, Open Wide the Freedom Gates, 168; Sargent, Civil Rights Revolution, 98–99.

(128.) Kennedy, “Once Upon a Week,” Queens Voice, November 13, 1964, 14.

(129.) “Suggested Highlights from WLIB’S Public Service Programming,” August 6, 1966, box 8, FKP.

(p.249) (130.) Investigative Report, New York, New York, July 28, 1964, November 6, 1964, November 15, 1964, February 5, 1965, January 19, 1965, February 2, 1965, FRK/FBI.

(131.) Investigative Report, location unknown, January 19, 1965, New York, FRK/FBI, 24. The Workers World Party consistently supported many civil rights and Black Power organizations, especially the Black Panther Party.

(132.) Florynce R. Kennedy to Sir, February 21, 1960, box 12.5–12.6, PFK.

(135.) The People of the State of New York, Respondent, v. Florynce Kennedy, Appellant, decided April 6, 1967.

(140.) Kennedy-Banks interview with author, October 16, 2004.

(142.) The People of the State of New York, Respondent, v. Florynce Kennedy, Appellant.

(144.) Kennedy-Banks interview with author, October 16, 2004.