Building Radical Bridges

Florynce “Flo” Kennedy: The Life of a Black Feminist Radical
By Sherie M. Randolph
Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015, 328 pp., $30.00 hardcover

Reviewed by Benita Roth

In Florynce “Flo” Kennedy, Sherie M. Randolph, an associate professor of history and Afroamerican studies at the University of Michigan, has done an important service for anyone who cares about fashioning a complete and complex record of post-World War II feminist activism. Flo Kennedy was a vivid television presence in the 1970s, and remembering her image, I looked her up on YouTube. I expected to find a lot, but came up with very little: a clip of her profanely leading the chorus of one of her signature protest songs, set to the tune of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and a precious, audio-only sound-bite from her speech at the first National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights in 1979.

This kind of paltry digital legacy confirms the need for biographies of important and heretofore understudied feminist figures such as Kennedy. It takes nothing away from Kennedy’s seriousness of political purpose to say that she was a media-savvy gadfly, someone who understood how to inspire would-be activists and how to garner attention from the halls of established power. As Randolph shows, Kennedy was a relentlessly political person, a constant organizer who was nonetheless better at catalyzing organizations than sustaining them.

Randolph begins her biography with an examination of Kennedy’s origins, focusing on the family dynamics that led to her radical politics. Born in 1916 to a lower-middle-class black family in Kansas City, Missouri, Kennedy early on received messages about confronting white racism from her family, whom she described as “political in the sense that we never took any shit.” In 1925 Kennedy’s mother, Zella, took her three daughters to Los Angeles to visit family, leaving behind her husband, and decided to stay, joining the many blacks seeking a freer life in southern California. In Los Angeles, Kennedy, then nine years old, experienced a reprieve from harsh winters and harsh racism.

After two years, Kennedy’s father came to reclaim the family—possibly because Zella was ill—and they returned to Kansas City. The Depression foreclosed on black women’s few options for employment, and both Zella and Flo worked as domestics for a time. Randolph notes that Zella taught her daughters to reject the silences required by the black community’s “politics of respectability,” and to own their sexuality. In Kansas City, Kennedy got to know NAACP officers and, in 1942, at the age of 26, she and her sister Grayce staged a two-woman sit-in at a whites-only bus stop café. During a struggle with angry whites, Kennedy was yanked off a stool so hard that she suffered a spinal dislocation, the effects of which would be with her for the rest of her life.

In 1943, Kennedy took a vacation to visit her sister in New York City and stayed, attracted by the opportunities the city offered. She attended Columbia University’s Program of Undergraduate Studies (later the School of General Studies, a program aimed at working students), where she was often the only black woman in her classes. The gender issues raised by her courses inspired her. She explicitly rejected the roles of wife and mother, and explored the implications of the analogy, popular at the time, of women’s situation being like that of “Negroes.”

She was working at exactly the kind of “good government job”—as a researcher for the Veterans Benefits Administration—that she had hoped to find in New York, when her socialist sympathies got her fired. Though she was not one for party discipline, she had connected with radicals in the city, which landed her on the FBI’s radar. She wanted to become a lawyer, but was initially rejected from Columbia Law School. Refusing to take “no” for an answer, she confronted an assistant dean, telling him that her rejection was unacceptable, since less-qualified white men had been admitted, and she used the school’s perception that she had ties to influential radicals to have the decision reversed.

Kennedy’s path as a black woman practicing law was never easy, and it was rendered more difficult by her marriage to a possibly abusive, alcoholic writer, and to her dishonest law partner, who literally took their firm’s money and ran. Kennedy left her husband and never married again—committing herself to activism instead. Despite these personal and professional losses, Kennedy began to make a name for herself as an attorney. She defended the singer Billie Holiday against narcotics charges and developed “a reputation as an entertainment lawyer willing to battle the industry on behalf of artists and their families,” writes Randolph, who argues that Kennedy eventually become cynical about the law, but was never willing to relinquish its strategic power as she fought for radical causes.

To build an activist voice in the 1960s black community, Kennedy began writing a weekly column for a local black newspaper, the Queens Voice, entitled “Once Upon a Week,” and hosting a radio program for station WLIB on Sunday nights called Opinions. She held parties and salon-like events in her apartment for left-wingers like herself, who believed that racism, classism, and US imperialism were linked. Her arrest in her own neighborhood in 1965 by police suspicious of her as a black woman only hardened her radical principles.

In view of this political background, Kennedy’s involvement throughout the 1960s and 1970s in both the black power and feminist movements makes a great deal of sense, and Randolph’s narrative really takes off in the latter part of the book, as she covers Kennedy’s contributions. With her view of linked oppressions, Kennedy argued that the nascent National Organization for Women (NOW) should ally itself with the black power movement—but not surprisingly, she was rebuffed. That didn’t stop her from continuing to attend New York NOW meetings, nor from bringing the white NOW members Ti-Grace Atkinson and Peg Brennan to the Black Power Conference in July of 1967, where they were decidedly unwelcome.

Such rejections did not stop Kennedy from continuing to advocate what we would now call an intersectional view of liberation. However, she and others who sought a politics of coalition faced a pervasive left ethos of what I called (in Separate Roads to Feminism: Black, Chicana, and White Feminist Movements in America’s Second Wave [2004]), the anti-coalitional politics of “organizing one’s own.” Left organizations in the 1960s and 1970s were concerned with authenticity and self-determination; as racial/ethnic lines hardened, so did the sense that one’s community was determined along racial/ethnic lines. Given this activist milieu, Kennedy was seldom successful in making the links among organizations that she wished to see. Rather, Randolph sees her as what the sociologist Belinda Robnett (in How Long? How Long? African American Women in the Struggle for Civil Rights [1997]) calls a “bridge leader.” Randolph argues that Kennedy moved back and forth between movements and brought to feminists the ideological lessons of Black Power. Randolph writes that Kennedy, “[l]ike many other radicals…saw the emerging women’s movement as a logical extension of Black Power’s emphasis on liberation and self determination.” And in bringing white women’s liberationists to the Black Power Conference, Kennedy clearly wanted the black movement to address sexism within its ranks.

Kennedy was not exactly the kind of bridge leader that Robnett envisioned: she was both a behind-the-scenes go-between and a very public spokesperson. In 1970, she paired with Gloria Steinem on a speaking tour that took them to college campuses and local feminist groups; she was also instrumental in establishing grassroots support for the insurgent Feminist Party, which supported Shirley Chisholm’s historic 1972 run for president. However, despite her high profile as a black feminist, Kennedy ultimately came to feel that white feminists were not ready for true coalitional politics. In a battle over NOW’s leadership structure—Atkinson had put forth a proposal for rotating the presidency of the group, to counter what she saw as Betty Friedan’s moderating power—Kennedy resigned from the organization. She did not turn her back on feminist politics, however; in fact, she played a catalyzing role in the formation of the National Black Feminist Organization (NBFO) in 1973—although her involvement in that group was short lived, and she soon moved on to other political projects.

You can’t come away from Randolph’s biography without great admiration for Kennedy; whatever her shortcomings as an organizer, she was clearly devoted to her causes, and she constantly sought to inspire, educate, and connect with others. Randolph’s research was truly Herculean: she organized and cataloged Kennedy’s papers at the Schlesinger Library; sifted through other collections; conducted interviews; listened to audio recordings; watched archived video; read court cases, newspaper articles and scholarly sources; combed through FBI files; and spoke with family members. The result is a kaleidoscopic portrait of the activist.

Still, aspects of Kennedy’s life, most notably her private life after her marriage, remain elusive. That may be by Kennedy’s design, but it is hard to know, and I wish that Randolph had broached the topic. I would also have liked to learn more about Kennedy’s life after the 1970s; Randolph fleshes out Kennedy’s early years but leaves her later ones underexplored. A growing literature shows that, contrary to the pop-culture stereotype, radical activists maintain their radicalism over time. It would have been instructive to know more about what Kennedy thought of the aftermath of 1960s and 1970s protest mobilizations.

I also wish Randolph had considered, in theoretical terms, why Kennedy was such an individualist in her activism, so unwilling to be beholden to any one group, so accepting, it seems, of being a perpetual outsider to the organizations that she touched. I mostly missed this theoretical consideration of the relationship between individual activists and organizational trajectories in Randolph’s narration of the “fall” of the NBFO, which she more or less blames on Kennedy’s failure to stick around and guide the group. Just as a “great woman/man” theory of history won’t fly in accounting for historical successes, a great woman, even one as vital as Kennedy, can’t be held responsible for an organization’s failure. Randolph argues that the NBFO faltered from a lack of resources, especially compared to a group like NOW. Others, however, including myself (in Separate Roads) and Kimberly Springer (in Living for the Revolution: Black Feminist Organizations, 1968-1980 [2005]), argue that resources were only part of the organization’s problems. Springer identifies homophobia, activist burn-out, and factionalism in accounting for the NBFO’s demise, while I argue that its New York City-based leadership failed to capitalize on grassroots support for black feminism by trying too hard to emulate NOW’s centralized control of local chapters. Kennedy helped to start the NBFO, but she wasn’t a central player in that organization after its first year or so, and its demise should not be traced to her influence or the lack of it.

All in all, Randolph has written an extremely useful biography for those seeking to understand the bundle of energy, style, humor, and smarts that was Flo Kennedy. The book is also a good entry into understanding the tumult of left protest politics in the 1960s and 1970s. Randolph’s work contributes to the leaky dam we scholars of that era are always trying to build against cultural forgetting. I’m grateful for both Kennedy’s and Randolph’s efforts on behalf of the ongoing struggle for progressive change.

Benita Roth is an associate professor of sociology, history, and women’s studies at Binghamton University. She is the author of Separate Roads to Feminism: Black, Chicana, and White Feminist Movements in America’s Second Wave (2004), and of The Life and Death of ACT UP/LA: Anti-AIDS Activism in Los Angeles from the 1980s to the 2000s (forthcoming, 2016).

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