Author Sherie M. Randolph talks with Taylor Humin about her new biography, Florynce “Flo” Kennedy: The Life of a Black Feminist Radical.
Taylor Humin: Who was Florynce Kennedy?
Sherie M. Randolph: Flo Kennedy (1916-2000) was a media-savvy black feminist lawyer who understood the necessity of broad-based political alliances and utilized street theater in her protests during the 1960s and 1970s.
Kennedy worked in the civil rights, New Left, Black Power, and women’s movements. She was among the small circle of northern women who supported grassroots organizers in Mississippi’s voter registration campaign, was an early member of the National Organization for Women, and helped to organize the first National Black Power Conference and numerous black feminist organizations. Moving fluidly between these movements and organizations, she extended what she deemed the most comprehensive theories and effective strategies of each movement to the others. Respected—and sometimes disliked—for her intellect, coarse rhetoric, and compelling charisma, she allied with, debated, and influenced many more well-known radicals: singer Billie Holiday, recognized for the anti-lynching ballad “Strange Fruit”; New York City’s longtime congressional representatives Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and Shirley Chisholm; Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee leader H. Rap Brown; civil liberties lawyer William Kunstler; and NOW’s Betty Friedan.
TH: What made you want to write about her?
SMR: Close to twenty years ago, I stumbled upon Kennedy when I was sitting on my sofa, flipping through TV channels, and old footage flashed across the screen of her arguing that we will know that sexism is worse than racism when we find feminists shot in bed like Black Panthers Mark Clark and Fred Hampton. As a black feminist, she was committed to Black Power. The fact that Kennedy’s central references were to Black Panthers who had been killed by the Chicago police illustrated that the women’s movement had not yet posed such a threat to the establishment. A friend watching with me who had worked at Ms. magazine was familiar with Kennedy’s name and knew that she had been active as a black feminist in the 1960s and 1970s, but she knew little else. So there started my fascination with collecting information on Flo Kennedy. Who was this radical black woman? And why had I never heard of her?
Until I began my research on Flo, I did not know black feminists had a history that reached into the 1960s. Flo exposed me to a world of black feminist thinkers, writers, and organizers.
TH: This is the first full-length work written about Flo Kennedy; meanwhile, Gloria Steinem, her contemporary and fellow activist, is a household name. Why isn’t Kennedy better known?
SMR: Despite Kennedy’s willingness to seek the media’s spotlight, the media often ignored her leadership in the women’s movement. She was black and middle-aged, and her image did not fit neatly with the media’s fascination with the “young,” “hip” new women’s movement of the 1960s and 1970s. The media had a bias toward stereotypically attractive women (read white and young) and often preferred to center or elevate in the press those women who fit this category (Gloria Steinem and Ti-Grace Atkinson, for example).
Often the media coverage of Kennedy’s actions did not mention that she was even a member (or an early or founding member) of organizations such as NOW or that she was a feminist. Instead, Kennedy was often portrayed as an organizer who was working alongside NOW or other feminist groups, but not as a leader of these organizations and actions. Some scholars have repeated this bias by ignoring or under-analyzing black feminism and Flo Kennedy.
Kennedy was well known to most radical activists during the 1960s and 1970s because she was a lawyer, fundraiser, and very skilled at drawing media attention to her causes. As a media-savvy activist, she was skillful in gaining the media’s attention for her actions, which ranged from pee-ins to protest Harvard Law School’s lack of bathroom facilities for women to marches down Fifth Avenue to protest the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. She relied on street theater to draw the notice of the media (and therefore advertisers, etc.) and potential organizers. Yet, until my book, history has forgotten her.
TH: You explore the intersections of Black Power and feminism throughout. Why do these movements continue to be seen as separate from one another? How was Kennedy able to foster these intersections?
SMR: My main argument is that Flo Kennedy helped to connect white feminists to the radical politics and methods of the Black Power movement. She wanted the mostly white feminist movement to be successful and success meant that the new women’s movement had to be antiracist and antisexist. She attempted to foster these connections through mentoring younger white feminists in the movement.
In very real ways, these struggles of the 1960s were separate, with rigid boundaries around race and political ideology. But most Black Power organizations worked to build and sustain political alliances between whites and blacks and other movements (especially the student movement, the New Left, etc.). The efforts of organizers like Kennedy to foster these political alliances become lost in the conversations that view Black Power as primarily about black separatism and armed self-defense. Equally problematic are conversations that equate the feminist movement with man hating.
SMR: I conducted most of my research in the private collections of her family, friends, media producers, and allies. I spent several years tracking down every bit of surviving material on Kennedy’s long life. Fortunately, family and friends had their own archives and were excited to share their crates of material with me. Sadly, a great deal of the material had not been well preserved and was in total disarray. For more than a year, I sat on the living room floor in the home of Kennedy’s sister, sifting through, organizing, and cataloging seventeen boxes of Flo’s belongings. Typically, most historians conduct their research in university or government archives where the material is already cataloged and properly organized. The vast majority of work on black feminists and black women radicals has not been archived in traditional repositories. So I had to literally organize and create the archive; that is part of the challenge of conducting work on African American women in general.
I started by placing disjointed pieces of paper together and reconstructing the labyrinth of Kennedy’s life from her pamphlets; posters; notes scribbled on cigarette pack liners; meeting minutes scrawled on aged, long yellow sheets; telephone bills; legal briefs placed next to white fur coats; “Run Jesse Run!” T-shirts; and an array of silver whistles and political buttons. After I finished my work, I helped the family donate Kennedy’s archive to Harvard’s Schlesinger Library.
TH: You also conducted a great deal of oral research. What was it like to speak to those who actually knew Flo?
SMR: I conducted dozens of interviews with a range of people (friends, family, producers, critics, activists, lawyers). From them, I learned more about Kennedy’s personality and how Flo operated in her day-to-day relationships, especially as it related to the men and women she mentored. This information was not fully available in the documents. For example, feminists like Gloria Steinem and Ti-Grace Atkinson described how Flo helped them to remain active and to enjoy organizing even when they were facing harsh criticism or felt burnt out by the movement. Most organizers described how Flo’s advice and ability to find pleasure and humor in organizing and protests helped them stay sane and committed to organizing.
TH: How did her childhood lead to her life of activism?
SMR: Flo grew up in Kansas City, Missouri (with two years in Los Angeles, CA), during the 1920s and 1930s. Kennedy’s parents taught their daughter to stand up to both black and white authority. Flo’s mother also encouraged her to rebuff gender dictates that hemmed women in to marriage, motherhood, and domesticity. Flo was allowed freedom to make her own choices. Sexual freedom was also not punished in the Kennedy home. I argue that this type of freedom for young black girls translated into an adult Flo who valued freedom in all ways, personally and politically.
TH: You emphasize the Kennedy family motto: “Never take any shit.” How did Flo exemplify this motto in her life and work?
SMR: For Kennedy, this motto was reflected in her political battles against all forms of oppression. Flo was on a mission to live a full life and for others to, as well. Hence, she fought against boundaries that pushed her into any inferior position. We see this in her battle against Columbia Law School to gain admission after being denied admission because she was a black woman, against NOW’s executive committee for failing to work to end racism along with sexism and even against the NYPD for stopping her from walking to her apartment in an all-white, middle-class neighborhood in Manhattan.
TH: Kennedy was an African American woman attorney at a time when this was all but unheard of. Talk about her struggle to get into Columbia Law School.
SMR: Kennedy was rejected from Columbia Law School in 1948. Having earned excellent grades as a Columbia undergraduate, she was surprised by the law school’s refusal to offer her admission. Determined to find out the reason for this decision, she requested a meeting with the administration. During their meeting, Kennedy accused the university of discriminating against qualified black women and men in favor of white male applicants. She described the merits of her application, asked how a Columbia College student with an excellent GPA could be overlooked, and contended that it must be because “I was a negro.” Kennedy remembered the dean’s attempt to reassure her with his explanation that “they had rejected me because of my sex and not because of my race.” This did nothing to pacify Flo. As soon as she left his office she wrote him a letter declaring that the university’s rationale did not matter and asserting, “If you have admitted any white man with lower grades than mine then I want to get in too.”
Reminding the assistant dean that other radicals stood behind her, she claimed, “Some of my cynical friends believe I’m being discriminated against because of my race. You say I can’t go to Columbia because I am a woman. Either way it feels the same.” It was all discrimination. The administration no doubt understood her as making a specifically legal threat. Shortly after this meeting and letter, Kennedy received notice that the law school had reevaluated its decision and accepted her into the first-year class. She was the only black woman in her class. There were very few women of any race at the university and very few black men.
TH: Was she the first woman graduate of Columbia Law?
SMR: No, Flo was not the first woman to graduate from Columbia Law School. Black women like Constance Baker Motley and white women like Bella Abzug graduated a few years before.
Columbia Law School first opened its doors to women in 1927, but it was not until WWII (when men were away at war) that the law school began to seek out women applicants to fill the seats left by men. Once the war was over, Columbia Law School, like other colleges and universities, attempted to abandon its interest in women applicants. Motley and Abzug both graduated during the WWII years.
TH: What were some of the highlights of her legal career?
SMR: Well, to list a few:
Kennedy was a lawyer for Billie Holiday and other jazz musicians during the 1950s and early 1960s.
Kennedy brought her legal expertise and political knowledge to the campaign to repeal New York State’s restrictive abortion laws. She served as counsel for Abramowicz v. Lefkowitz, the first class-action suit in which women themselves insisted on their right to be heard. Coupling speak-outs and demonstrations with constitutional arguments, the case helped to convince the legislature to amend the law before it was settled in court. Indeed, the tactics developed in the Abramowicz case—most notably the use of women as expert witnesses—would later be used in Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 federal case that overturned restrictive abortion laws. Although by the late 1960s she was one of the country’s best-known black feminists, Kennedy’s role in helping to legalize abortion has long since been forgotten.
The trial of H. Rap Brown (Chairman of SNCC and later a member of the Black Panther Party) was one of the Black Power movement’s first legal battles, and Kennedy’s spirited defense of him became a model for radical lawyers’ defense of Black Power leaders both inside and outside the courtroom. From 1967-1968, Kennedy worked as an attorney (with William Kunstler) and organizer for H. Rap Brown against charges that he had incited a riot.
In 1968, Kennedy served as feminist Valerie Solanas’s legal advisor in her defense against charges of shooting the artist Andy Warhol. Kennedy worked both inside and outside the court to bring the political import of Solanas’s crime to the public’s attention. In the Solanas case, she attempted to force the courts to see Solanas’s actions as those of a political actor who was defrauded by a male-dominated industry.
TH: What role did Kennedy play in the major feminist organizations that still exist today?
SMR: Kennedy attended the first meeting of the New York chapter of NOW in 1967 when the organization was in its nascent months. She helped to nurture leadership and organizing skills for many of the younger members of NOW.
TH: What surprised you most in your research?
SMR: I originally started this book thinking I would write about autonomous black feminist organizations like the National Black Feminist Organization. This became a much smaller part of the book. I was surprised that Kennedy’s activism focused on Black Power and building broad strategic and political alliances in addition to creating an independent black feminist movement. Feminism and Black Power are typically seen as working in tension with each other. Through Flo’s story, we see that this tension is overstated and that these movements and theories were profoundly interconnected.
TH: How is Florynce Kennedy’s life and work still relevant today?
SMR: We see clear continuity between Kennedy’s shock tactics and the recent #BlackLivesMatter demonstrations being waged by black and brown youth across the country. Flo stressed attention-grabbing public disruptions to gain the public’s notice and to change the dialogue in one’s favor. From Ferguson activists disrupting the symphony to protestors chanting “Black Lives Matter” at a presidential town hall meeting and Bree Newsome taking down the confederate flag in South Carolina to naked black women marching down a San Francisco Street chanting “Say Her Name: Resisting Police Brutality Against Black Women,” this generation of activists have helped draw media attention, organizers, etc., to their cause. Flo Kennedy’s activism during the 1960s and 1970s serves as a perfect model that predates the importance of guerilla theater activism and she serves as an example of its value.
TH: You quote Kennedy as saying that she believed “politics should be fun.” What can modern activists learn from Kennedy’s theatrical style of activism?
SMR: For years, Kennedy has been dismissed by some white feminist critics as an “entertainer” and “not a real feminist” because of her reliance on street theater protests. Kennedy’s street theater demonstrates that her savvy performances were strategically deployed to attract media attention to often-ignored issues, and were also a way to make fighting for justice irresistibly pleasurable for would-be activists, as well as those already hooked. Flo expected “politics to be fun,” so she sang loudly, laughed frequently, and recruited and sustained others with her excitement for challenging one’s own fears by confronting their enemies.
Kennedy was not deterred by critics who claimed that having fun meant that she was not serious and therefore couldn’t gain valuable results. Having fun for Flo was a priority and helped her to continue organizing over five decades. Hence, Kennedy encouraged organizers to work with people they liked and to cultivate and enjoy humorous actions. She insisted that organizers not let those who were critical of them steal their enjoyment/excitement. This is great advice for current activists who want to sustain themselves and their efforts during a protracted life of activism.
Sherie M. Randolph is associate professor of history and African American Studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Her book Florynce “Flo” Kennedy: The Life of a Black Feminist Radical is now available. Follow her on Twitter @sherandolph.