FLO: With Wit and Flamboyance, Activist Fights Injustice
Publicity shot of Flo Kennedy (1916-2000)
This article first appeared on February 5, 1981 in the Virginian-Pilot newspaper where I was a staff writer.
An entourage of admirers followed her into a hotel room Tuesday – her first night in town. She slipped out of her fur coat, pulled off purple rubber boots, and climbed under the red and white print bedspread.
Then Flo Kennedy, the 64-year-old lawyer, civil rights activist, feminist, and gay rights advocate, held court.
She called herself a “middle-aged colored lady.” She talked fast and straight. She whipped newspaper articles about and by herself out of her overnight bag, tossed one to a woman kneeling at the foot of the bed, and ordered: “Here, read this out loud.”
The silver-haired celebrity had a captive audience just as she did Wednesday afternoon when she spoke to students at Old Dominion University for Black History Month.
Color her Flo.
This woman who defended Billie Holiday on narcotics charges, handled Charlie Parker’s estate, founded the Feminist Party, and authored two books, including “Color Me Flo,” commands attention through her speech, her dress, her message.
“Reagan to me is not the worst thing that could happen,” she told about 250 people, mostly college students. “He’s clearly the enemy … What we need to do is form coalitions. Anybody who’s smart knows the last thing the Establishment wants to see is coalitions among blacks, Chicanos, women, gays, and other oppressed people.”
Flo has been preaching a similar message since the 1960s.
She has no scared cows.
With cutting humor, she has lashed out at presidents, corporations, and the media: “We ought to give the Pentagon budget to the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, and the HEW budget to the Pentagon. Then we’d have enough money to cure cancer and sickle cell anemia and muscular dystrophy, and we’d only have telethons for Pentagonorrhea.
And in her fight for minorities and women, she has kept a sense of humor: “When women began wearing pants, there was a tremendous backlash. I can remember … going to court in pants and the judge remarking that I wasn’t properly dressed, that the next time I came to court I should be dressed like a lawyer. He’s sitting there in a long black dress gathered at the yoke, and I said, ‘Judge, if you won’t talk about what I’m wearing, I won’t talk about what you’re wearing …’ “
She’s never thought she was ahead of her time. “No, honey. I feel that the times are behind me.”
But her oldest sister felt differently.
“She’s so far ahead of things,” said Evelyn C. Woods, from her Jamaica, N.Y. home. “She was upset about conditions in the world – even before it was fashionable, even when she was a little girl. In the olden days, when taking (bus) trips, they wanted her to sit in the wrong place. She’d raise ‘holy h.’
“She expects people to be interested in politics. She wouldn’t have much patience with someone with a bad outlook (different from hers).”
Leonard Cohen, a friend for 30 years and acting Supreme Court judge for New York County, agreed.
“Sometimes she is very tough dealing with people who don’t see things as she may see them. Her work is her life.”
And it all began in Kansas City, Missouri, as Flo recalls it:
“My sisters and I were walking to school, a segregated school, but we had to pass a white school to get there. I was about 6 years’ old then. Honey, we saw these white kids. They started yelling ‘nigger.’ We were so scared.
“I just turned around and started chasing after them. Grayce and Evelyn started chasing, too. They didn’t want me to get hurt. Those (white) kids started running away and crying. And that’s when I learned confrontation.”
She said her father, Wiley Kennedy, helped teach her that lesson. When the family moved into a white neighborhood and the Ku Klux Klan came knocking on their door, demanding they move out, her father brought out his gun and said: “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.”
The men left.
As a young woman, Flo moved to New York, working odd jobs at department stores, and attending Barnard College and Columbia University Law School. Joy Kennedy, her youngest sister who lives in East Orange, New Jersey, remembers her then:
“She was very conservative. She was married to a white guy and tried to do things in the mainstream. Her standards were very middle America. Her hair was as straight as you could get it. She wore very conservative, expensive clothes – beige clothes. She used to have parties with not one black person there … All she wanted was to be respected, have money, and be accepted.
“The only time she ever hit me was when I used a four-letter word. Can you believe it?”
Flo admitted: “I used to be so upset when they (my sisters) cursed. I wanted them to be so proper. ‘Oh, don’t raise your voice. Don’t eat on the street. Don’t split the infinitive.’ That was when I was trying to be a good little nigger – the nigger noble. When I was in law school, I wanted to be a perfect representative of my race.”
Joy remembered Flo became “radicalized” when she found “you just don’t get justice living in the South Bronx. She couldn’t prevail.”
The assassination of President John F. Kennedy also triggered the transformation. Flo became outspoken.
“She likes to outrage people because she thinks that society is outrageous. . . . Eleven a.m. Sunday morning is the most segregated time of the week. To show contempt of that hypocrisy, she tries to get as outrageous as possible. . . . She feels she has to curse. But around me and friends and family, she doesn’t curse,” Joy said.
Flo uses vulgar language for effect.
“If it’s good enough for Richard Nixon, it’s good enough for me,” she said. “I don’t cuss anyway – except for effect, to suggest things are going badly. I don’t need to be respectful. Don’t ask me to be polite.”
The people she admires are fighters – Gloria Steinem, Dick Gregory, Robin Tyler, and Angela Davis.
“I don’t worry about losing. My theory is that struggle pays off. It’s like peeing on the floor at a cocktail party. That’s a contribution to truth. They can’t maintain the illusion that everybody loves them.”