American civil rights attorney, political activist, and pioneer in second-wave feminism, Florynce Rae Kennedy (1916–2000) was an outspoken advocate for liberal causes.
In her cowboy hat, pants, and pink sunglasses, Kennedy gained a reputation as a flamboyant activist who stood up to authority and did not care what people said about her. Only the second African-American woman to graduate from Columbia Law School, Kennedy fought for the rights of Black Panther members and African-American singers discriminated against by music companies. Disgusted by the racism in the courts, Kennedy turned her energy to activism, fighting for women's liberation, abortion rights, civil rights, and consumer protection.
Kennedy was born February 11, 1916, in Kansas City, Missouri, the second of five daughters of Wiley and Zella Kennedy. Her father worked as a Pullman porter and waiter, and later owned a taxi business. Florynce got her determined attitude from her father. When Wiley bought a house in a mainly white neighborhood, he had the strength to fend off the Ku Klux Klan. In her autobiography, Color Me Flo , Kennedy describes the altercation. "They stood on the sidewalk … and said they wanted to see our daddy. When Daddy came out, they told him, 'You have to get out of here by tomorrow.' [Daddy] brought his gun … out with him and said, 'Now the first foot that hits that step belongs to the man I shoot. And then after that you can decide who is going to shoot me .' They went away and they never came back."
Flo's childhood was stable and uneventful, and the Kennedy girls were often praised. Zella, who was light skinned, was well educated and had attended "normal" schools, as Flo put it. Both parents valued education and instilled the view that authority and respect needed to be earned. Kennedy said in Color Me Flo , "We were taught very early in the game that we didn't have to respect the teachers, and if they threatened to hit us, we could act as if they weren't anybody we had to pay any attention to."
Although Kennedy graduated top of her class from Lincoln High School in Kansas City, in 1934, she delayed going to college immediately afterward. She went into business with her sisters opening a hat shop, and worked at a variety of other jobs, including operating elevators and singing on a radio show. Shortly thereafter, when a local Coca-Cola bottling facility refused to hire black truck drivers, Kennedy organized a boycott—her first foray into social activism.
In 1942, Zella died from cancer. Flo and her sister Grayce moved to New York City, where Flo began attending Columbia University in 1944. Even though she was encouraged to become a teacher, Kennedy graduated four years later with honors and a bachelor's degree in pre-law.
Kennedy applied to Columbia Law School in 1948, but was initially denied admission by the dean. When she confronted him, believing the denial was based on her race and threatening to sue, the dean assured her that race was not the issue, but instead it was her gender. To Kennedy, neither discrimination would stand, and eventually Columbia changed its decision and admitted her. Flo Kennedy was one of eight women in her class, and in 1951 became only the second African-American woman to graduate from Columbia Law School (the first was Elreda Alexander in 1945). After passing the New York Bar in 1952, Kennedy worked as a clerk in a law firm in Manhattan, then opened her own private practice in 1954.
Inconsistent with her independent personality, Kennedy got married in 1957 to Charles Dudley Dye, a Welsh writer ten years younger than her. Feeling constrained by the properties of marriage and intolerant of Dye's alcoholism, Kennedy dissolved the marriage after a few years. They had no children. Dye died shortly thereafter. Kennedy noted, "Anyone who marries a drunk Welshman doesn't deserve sympathy."
With her growing desire for civil rights and corporate accountability, Kennedy took on some high profile legal clients, such as civil rights activist H. Rap Brown and a female member of the Black Liberation Front charged with bank robbery. In 1969, she assisted in representing several Black Panther members of the eastern branch of the organization who were charged with conspiracy to blow up stores in New York City. They were acquitted in 1971 after the longest political trial in New York's history.
Taking on discrimination by recording company behemoths, Kennedy represented the estates of jazz legends Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker that were suing to recover withheld royalties and sales. The racism she encountered in the courts and in these cases planted seeds of doubt in her whether practicing law was her calling and if she could bring about social change another way.
"Handling the Holiday and Parker estates taught me more than I was really ready for about government and business delinquency and the hostility and helplessness of the courts …" she wrote in Color Me Flo . "These … marked the beginning of a serious disenchantment … with the practice of law. By this time I had learned a good deal about the justice system, and had begun to doubt my ability to work within it to accomplish social change. Not only was I not earning a decent living, there began to be a serious question in my mind whether practicing law could ever be an effective means of changing society, or even of simple resistance to oppression."
In the 1960s, Kennedy broadened her scope to include political involvement and battling oppression in a variety of arenas—racism, sexism, and homosexuality. She led boycotts of large corporations, including picketing the Colgate-Palmolive building in New York, leading protests at CBS headquarters, and participating in anti-Vietnam War and pro-liberation initiatives organized by Youth Against War and Fascism.
In 1966, Kennedy created the Media Workshop, an organization charged with fighting racism and discrimination in the media. The group led boycotts of advertisers who did not feature African Americans in their ads. After picketing in the street in front of an advertiser, Kennedy and the protesters were invited inside to discuss their grievances. Marsha Joyner recalled on the Civil Rights Movement Veterans website that Kennedy then quipped, "Ever since I've been able to say, 'When you want to get to the suites, start in the streets.'"
Kennedy's lecturing career may have started in 1967 after she attended an anti-Vietnam War rally in Montreal. When Black Panther Bobby Seale was not allowed to speak since his topic was going to be racism rather than be focused on the war, Kennedy took the platform and started yelling and protesting. She gained attention and was soon invited to speak in Washington, D.C. Never afraid to speak her mind, she said about herself in Color Me Flo , "I'm just a loud-mouthed middle-aged colored lady with a fused spine and three feet of intestines missing and a lot of people think I'm crazy … I never stop to wonder why I'm not like other people. The mystery to me is why more people aren't like me."
Another of Kennedy's causes was women's liberation, for all women, not just African-American women, and urged the two races to work together. Helen H. King quoted Kennedy in Ebony magazine as saying, "It is obvious that many black women are not prepared to work with whites in liberation because of the divide and conquer techniques always employed by an exploitative society. However, in many towns there are movements where black and white women are working one to one (in the movement)…. It's the same gig wherever you are. Whether you're fighting for women's lib or just black lib, you're fighting the same enemies."
In fighting for women's rights, Kennedy helped found the Women's Political Caucus and the National Black Feminist Organization. She was an original member of the National Organization for Women (NOW) and joined the group Radical Women to protest the 1968 Miss America pageant in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Kennedy also founded the national Feminist Party, which in 1971 nominated Representative Shirley Chisholm (D-NY), the first African-American woman elected to Congress, for president. Kennedy even protested the shortage of female bathrooms at Harvard University by leading a mass urination on the campus grounds.
On the abortion rights front, Kennedy organized feminist lawyers in 1969 to challenge the constitutionality of New York state's antiabortion laws. She collaborated on briefs and cross-examined witnesses in pretrial hearings. The laws were overturned the following year. In 1971, Kennedy co-authored with Diane Schulder a book on the class action suit, Abortion Rap , one of the first books on abortion. Kennedy even took on the Roman Catholic Church by filing a tax evasion charge to the Internal Revenue Service, claiming that the church's vocal and financial campaign against abortion breeched its tax-exempt status and violated the federal constitution's call for the separation of church and state.
For her 70th birthday in 1985, Kennedy was roasted at Playboy's Empire Club in New York City. Guests who came out to joke with her included comic-activist Dick Gregory, civil rights lawyer William Kunstler, and television talk show host Phil Donahue. On the lighter side of her activities, Kennedy was named director of Voters, Artists, Anti-Nuclear Activists and Consumers for Political Action and Communication Coalition (VACPAC), and director of the Ladies Aid and Trade Crusade, two tongue-in-cheek organizations fighting for consumer rights.
Despite quitting her lecture circuit due to back pains and ill health, Kennedy continued her activism throughout her life and produced a weekly interview show on cable TV. Throughout her career she lectured at more than 200 colleges and universities. She spent much of her later years confined to a wheelchair.
Kennedy died in her Manhattan apartment on December 22, 2000, at the age of 84. Speakers at her memorial at New York's Riverside Church included former New York Mayor David Dinkins, the Reverend Al Sharpton, Father Lawrence Lucas, Judge Emily Goodman, and Ti-Grace Atkinson.
As quoted in her New York Times obituary, Dinkins said about Kennedy, "If you found a cause for the downtrodden of somebody being abused someplace, by God, Flo Kennedy would be there." In recognizing Kennedy's tireless advocacy, Justice Goodman of New York State Supreme Court said, "She showed a whole generation of us the right way to live our lives…. Her point was that you have to fight on all the fronts all the time." As someone who was adamant about not wasting her life, Kennedy had said, "Sweetie, if you're not living on the edge, then you're taking up space."
Kennedy, Florynce, Color Me Flo: My Hard Life and Good Times , Englewood Cliffs, 1976.
Notable Black American Women , edited by Jesse Carney Smith, Gale Research, 1992.
Ebony , March 1971.
Jet , January 15, 2001.
New York Times , December 23, 2000.
Davis, Sue, "Flo Kennedy: An Irreverent, Outspoken Activist," Workers World , http://www.workers.org/ww/2001/flokennedy0201.php (December 7, 2006).
"Florynce Kennedy," http://www.depts.drew.edu/wmst/corecourses/wmst111/timeline_bios/fkennedy.htm (December 7, 2006).
Joyner, Marsha, "Florynce Kennedy," Civil Rights Movement Veterans, http://www.crmvet.org/mem/kennedyf.htm (December 7, 2006).
Moon, Terry, "Recalling Flo Kennedy," News & Letters—The Journal of Marxist-Humanism , http://www.newsandletters.org/Issues/2001/Jan-Feb/1.01_flo.htm (December 7, 2006).