A folklorist, Kennedy was named for someone in his mother’s family: the inventor of the cowboy hat, John B. Stetson. But he’s best known for “infiltrating” the Ku Klux Klan by posing as an encyclopedia salesman and dropping a name the Klan would know: that of an uncle who was a member. Because he was excluded from the military during World War II due to a bad back, he thought espionage against the KKK, whom he called “homegrown racial terrorists,” would be his alternative “patriotic duty.” Once he learned as much as he could, he passed the information on to law enforcement officials — and the public, in the 1954 book I Rode With the Ku Klux Klan (rereleased in 1990 as The Klan Unmasked). He also testified against the Klan in numerous cases, leading to the government to press for evaded taxes, and to Georgia revoke its state charter. “Exposing their folklore — all their secret handshakes, passwords and how silly they were, dressing up in white sheets,” was a huge blow to the KKK, says Peggy Bulger, director of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. “If they weren’t so violent, they would be silly.” Kennedy died August 27, at 94.
From This is True for 28 August 2011