Florynce Kennedy
(1916  — 2000)

As remembered by Marsha Joyner

A lawyer and political activist, whose flamboyant attire and sometimes- outrageous comments drew attention to her fierce struggle for civil rights and feminism.

Long before many of use knew about a "movement" Flo, as she was commonly known, was an activist. Recognizable everywhere in cowboy hat and pink sunglasses. When she was denied admission to Columbia Law School, because she was "a woman". Flo promptly sued the law school "saying that they had denied her admission because she was Black." She was admitted. Becoming the first African American woman to graduate from Columbia Law School.

Flo was flamboyant, outspoken and deeply committed to several liberal causes. She fought tirelessly in court and on the streets for civil, human and women's rights. Flo was one of the founding members of the National Women's Political Caucus and the national Feminist Party.

She was a friend with everyone, the greats and near greats from feminist Gloria Steinem to former Mayor David Dinkins. Her legal clients ranged from the Black Panthers to Civil Rights Activist H. Rap Brown to the estates of Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker.

"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. "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."

She turned to political activism, setting up an organization called the Media Workshop in 1966 to fight racism in journalism and advertising. Picketing an advertising agency led to the protesters' being invited upstairs to state their case. She said, "Ever since I've been able to say, `When you want to get to the suites, start in the streets.' "

Her strategy became to go after the biggest targets possible. "Grass- roots organizing is like climbing into bed with a malaria patient in order to show how much you love him or her, then catching malaria yourself," she wrote. "I say if you want to kill poverty, go to Wall Street and kick - or disrupt."

Increasingly, her legal cases were almost always political. "Sweetie," she said, "if you're not living on the edge, then you're taking up space."

My friend Florynce Kennedy showed me how to use the power of community television. "I'm big on consumer activism" she would say matter of factly "Only when it hurts their pocketbook do they act".

Flo founded the "Media Workshop" and threaten product boycott if the major advertisers did not use Black people in their ads.

As her health failed, her spirit did not. In her autobiography, she wrote: "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. Maybe you do too, but I never stopped to wonder why I'm not like other people. The mystery to me is why more people aren't like me."

"If you found a cause for the downtrodden of somebody being abused someplace, by God, Flo Kennedy would be there," former Mayor David N. Dinkins of New York said.

People magazine in 1974 called her "the biggest, loudest and, indisputably, the rudest mouth on the battleground where feminist activists and radical politics join in mostly common cause."

Justice Emily Jane Goodman of New York State Supreme Court said Ms. Kennedy gave women courage. "She showed a whole generation of us the right way to live our lives," Justice Goodman said.

Gloria Steinem coined the phrase "verbal karate'' to describe Kennedy's style. Kennedy had a knack for taking complex issues and reducing them to the core concept that exposed bigotry or encouraged action or did whatever the subject required.

Ms. Steinem said, "She understood what Emma Goldman understood: there has to be laughter and fun at the revolution, or it isn't a revolution."

Marie Wilson, president of the Ms. Foundation, stated Ms. Kennedy "one of the most wonderfully outrageous pioneers of feminism in America."

Ms. Kennedy gave an emphatic yes. "Her point was that you have to fight on all the fronts all the time," Justice Goodman said.

Other fronts included founding the Feminist Party in 1971. Its first act was to nominate Representative Shirley Chisholm, Democrat of New York, for president.

In 1967, Ms. Kennedy attended a rally against the Vietnam War in Montreal. Bobby Seale, the Black Panther, was not allowed to speak. "I went berserk," she wrote. "I took the platform and started yelling and hollering." An invitation for Ms. Kennedy to speak in Washington followed, and a 20-year lecturing career was born.

According to Kennedy's obituary in The New York Times, their lectures frequently drew men to their audience and all too often one of them stood up and asked, "Are you lesbians?''

Florynce Rae Kennedy, the second of five daughters, was born on Feb. 11, 1916, in Kansas City, Mo. Her father was a Pullman porter and later owned a taxi business. He once stood up with a shotgun to members of the Ku Klux Klan who wanted to drive him from a home he had bought in a mainly white neighborhood.

In her autobiography, "Color Me Flo: My Hard Life and Good Times" (1976), she said her parents almost never criticized their daughters. In fact, they could seemingly do almost no wrong. "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."

After graduating from high school, Ms. Kennedy opened a hat shop in Kansas City with her sisters. Within a few years, she was involved in her first political protest, helping organize a boycott when the local Coca-Cola bottler refused to hire black truck drivers.

In 1957, Ms. Kennedy married Charles Dye, a writer 10 years her junior. He died a few years later. "Anyone who marries a drunk Welshman doesn't deserve sympathy," she once said. Her views on the exclusivity of marriage were not much brighter. "Why would you lock yourself in the bathroom just because you have to go three times a day," she wrote.

Copyright © 2004, Marsha Joyner

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