Remembering Flo Kennedy:
"Sweetie, if you're not living on the edge, then you're taking up space..."
By Debbie Lang
Revolutionary Worker #1095, March 18, 2001, posted at http://rwor.org
"Sweetie, if you're not living on the edge, then you're taking up space."
Florynce Rae Kennedy lived on the edge, fighting against the injustices of this system her entire life. She died at the age of 84 on December 22, 2000 in New York City. For nearly 50 years, Flo was a prominent activist in the struggles against the oppression of Black people and women. One of Flo's favorite phrases was "Kick Ass!"--and that's exactly what she did. Everywhere she saw injustice she took it on in the most audacious, unapologetic way. She boldly challenged the status quo with a humor and wit matched by few.
In her 1976 autobiography, Color Me Flo: My Hard Life and Good Times, she wrote, "We were taught early on not to take any shit from anyone" and described what happened when the KKK came to her family's house to drive them out of a white neighborhood in Kansas City: "They stood on the sidewalk, at the bottom of the wooden stairs going up to the porch--they never touched our porch--and said they wanted to see our daddy. When Daddy came out, they told him, 'You have to get out of here by tomorrow.' 'Just a minute,' he said, and went into the house. He brought his gun back 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."
After their mother died, Flo moved to Harlem with her sister and attended Columbia University while working full-time. She began to draw links between the oppression of Black people and women--a paper she wrote for a sociology class was titled "A Comparative Study: Accentuating the Similarities of the Societal Position of Women and Negroes." Flo graduated with an A average but was denied admittance to Columbia Law School because she was a woman--until she threatened to file a racial discrimination lawsuit. Flo was the first Black woman to graduate from the law school. To people who encouraged her to become a teacher instead of a lawyer she responded: "I find that the higher you aim, the better you shoot."
As an attorney she defended the estates of Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker to recover money owed them by record companies. She practiced matrimonial law where she helped women who had been abused by their husbands. She once told feminist Gloria Steinem, "Talk to any group of five or six women. One of them was probably sexually abused as a child by a man in her own family circle." Flo quickly became disillusioned with the legal system: "I realized that the law was not set up for justice for anybody that I cared about--it may be justice for the landlords and the banks and the television networks and the telephone companies to get multi-million dollar raises, but when it came to the people I cared about, justice was nonexistent."
During the 1960s and '70s, Flo was a prominent figure on television and in newspapers who was instantly recognizable because she almost always wore a cowboy hat and pink sunglasses: "I wear funny hats all the time, mostly designed for men, and I think it's a gas. It's important for us to understand that one reason men's clothes are off limits is that they carry a message: 'If you only want a woman who wears lace and ruffles, I am not the one for you.' And anything a woman does that suggests she may not be the person for some man is regarded as impudent." Once a judge told her she wasn't dressed properly for court because she was wearing pants. She wrote: "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."
Flo recognized the role of the media as a powerful weapon in shaping public opinion and a decisive arena of struggle if you want to change society: "One of my favorite targets is the media. I don't think we should continue to permit the Establishment to feed us only what they think we should have. Marshmallows are not dangerous food--I dig marshmallows myself--but a strictly marshmallow diet for diabetics is what we get from the media." In 1966 she founded the Media Workshop to combat racism in the media and advertising. She also hosted "The Flo Kennedy Show," the longest running cable access TV show.
Flo wasn't afraid to say and do whatever would get people's attention. People magazine called her "radicalism's rudest mouth." In the '70s Flo appeared as a guest on the Phil Donahue Show: "I sang this song, "My Country 'Tis of Thee, Sweet Land of Bigotry".... I'm pretty obnoxious because I happen to think that this is a very obnoxious society and I don't think that people who are suffering from an obnoxious society have to get on and call it our beloved country."
Gloria Steinem described how Flo dealt with opposition while the two were on a speaking tour for women's rights in the early '70s: "When a hostile man asked if we were lesbians (as frequently happened; why else would a white and black woman be colleagues?), Flo would just look him in the eye and ask, 'Are you my alternative?'Ê"
Flo criticized women and Black people who "made it" and then used their position against the people. In an essay called "Institutionalized Oppression Versus the Female" in the feminist anthology Sisterhood Is Powerful she wrote: "Kicking ass should be only where an ass is protecting the System. Ass-kicking should be undertaken regardless of the sex, the ethnicity, or the charm of the oppressor's agent. As the struggles intensify, the oppressor tends to select more attractive agents, frequently from among the oppressed."
In 1983 she starred in Lizzie Borden's film Born In Flames--in which she played the leader of a Woman's Army "in America 10 years after the Second American Revolution." In the film, women of different nationalities and classes rise up against those in power--who include Black people and women--in the face of arguments to be patient, that change will happen slowly.
In 1971 Flo founded the Feminist Party, which nominated Black Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm for president--and later campaigned for David Dinkins (the first Black mayor of New York City) and Jesse Jackson. Flo was not a revolutionary. But she did believe there needed to be radical change in society. And she supported many of the revolutionary struggles of her time. She once told the Providence Journal-Bulletin: "I think it's a big mistake to announce that you're non-violent. I don't know why anybody living in a culture based on bullets and anti-ballistic missiles would talk non-violence....There's no group of people in this country we treat worse than the Native Americans....They want land and the U.S. officials want to give them money. My theory is that they should take the money, buy guns and take the land. I think it's about time they addressed this country in the kind of concepts we understand--violence."
Flo supported and defended people involved in the Black liberation movement and said in one interview: "If you test the fences of this society and dare to influence the direction of this society, they know you mean business by the extent to which you identify with the black revolution.... If you want to absolutely communicate the depth of your determination to bring down this society that is committed to racism, then indicate determination to frustrate racism with a coalition with the black revolutionary struggle."
A Life of Struggle
Flo Kennedy never stopped fighting the system. She helped organize a boycott against a Kansas City company that would not hire Black truck drivers. She went to Mississippi during the civil rights movement. She marched against the Vietnam War. She fought for women's rights and to decriminalize prostitution. She served as an attorney for H. Rap Brown, The Panther 21 and Assata Shakur. Her and a friend turned their hotel room into an "emergency battlefield first aid station" during the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago.
Flo was on the front lines of the struggle to legalize abortion in the '60s and early '70s. She frequently told people: "If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament." She co-authored a book called Abortion Rap which contained documents from a lawsuit she and other women filed that declared the New York State abortion laws unconstitutional. This was one of the first books on abortion where women talked openly about the horrors of unwanted pregnancies and deadly back alley abortions.
By the late '60s, Flo rarely practiced law--and when she did it was almost always to defend political activists who had been arrested--or to file anti-discrimination lawsuits. In 1972 she filed a complaint with the IRS, claiming that the Catholic Church violated its tax-exempt status by violating the separation between church and state when it launched a campaign against abortion.
At an anti-war convention in Montreal in 1967, organizers wouldn't let Bobby Seale of the Black Panther Party speak because "he wanted to talk about racism instead of limiting the discussion to opposing the war in Vietnam." Flo took the stage and protested. This incident was typical Flo. She was not afraid to raise principled criticisms of the movements she was involved in. And she united and worked with people she had serious disagreements with while she continued to struggle for what she felt was right. Flo argued that the woman's movement needed to take a stand on the war in Vietnam and issues of concern to Black and other oppressed nationality women. At the same time she struggled against male domination and argued against a common view among Black people--including many Black revolutionaries of the time--who opposed abortion (calling it genocide) and some who argued that Black women should have more babies to strengthen the Black nation.
During the 1980s the RCP had the opportunity to work with Flo on a number of different broad initiatives. She was a panelist for the Mass Proletarian War Crimes Tribunal and spoke at a Refuse & Resist! conference on abortion rights. She signed a statement against the U.S. rape of the Iraqi people during the Persian Gulf War. Mary Lou Greenberg, Spokesperson for the RCP, New York Branch says: "She was a person who definitely refused to go along with the status quo. She supported everyone who she felt was going up against the system, broadly defined. Whenever there were progressive things happening she was a presence either directly or through her name."
Flo played an important role in the "Draw The Line" campaign to oppose the bombing of a MOVE house in Philadelphia in 1985 which resulted in the murder of 11 Black people. She was also one of the people who contributed a statement to the book, Attention, MOVE! This is America!, by Margot Harry. In this statement she said, "I think the difference between what [Mayor] Goode did and what is done by police throughout this country is simply the method. Killing Black people by city government is par for the course, but it is normally done by the police with guns. In this case it was done in a more American way with bombs... Although the bombing of the MOVE community was an atrocity, atrocities are so endemic to this country. The entire country is predicated on atrocities."
RCP National Spokesperson Carl Dix explains: "Flo really jumped onto it. She was real clear on how getting Black faces in high places had worked to paralyze people in that situation, the fact that it was a Black mayor who could take responsibility for the bombing. She had no qualms about calling that out."
Flo also joined efforts to expose the war on drugs as a war on the people. Carl Dix remembers: "She went to Cleveland for a conference that we did around the war on drugs. She was in a wheelchair at that time and she and others had gone out to the projects and had been agitating in the projects. They drew a big crowd. They drew police. She was agitating about these police are here not to protect the community, they're here to occupy the community and oppress the community. People were going to get her out of there and she was like, 'No, I'm staying. This is the best time to be here. I'm not going to leave when the cops come. I would have left if we hadn't done anything that drew them here.' She really loved it."
By the late '80s Flo had had three strokes and two heart attacks and was confined to a wheelchair. Through it all she maintained her sense of humor. She held memorial parties for herself so she wouldn't miss them after she died. Shocked friends would call her up, thinking she had passed away. She would just laugh and say, "Well, are you coming?"
Flo Kennedy was respected and loved by people with many different political views. She touched and changed the lives of literally tens of thousands of people. Several hundred people attended memorials held to celebrate her life in New York City. A wide range of people turned out to honor her--including former New York City Mayor David Dinkins, singer Roberta Flack, Rev. Al Sharpton, feminists, judges and elected officials, attorneys, former members of the Black Panther Party and supporters of the RCP.
Marcia Gillespie, a Black woman who is the editor of Ms. magazine, called Flo "the first free woman I ever knew" and said she taught her feminism "wasn't all about white middle class women in the suburbs." Gloria Steinem remarked: "No one, but no one, was more of a life embracing, generous person, a better friend than Flo.... She looked at this country where we have had slavery longer than we have not had slavery, where female human beings are still valued less than their male counterparts, where most children still grow up with hunger and violence and too little encouragement to be their own selves, and she looked at the homeless and the powerless and the hopeless and she made a conscious decision to use methods of outrageousness, of truth telling, of humor and of hope."
Flo was completely outrageous and unapologetic in the way she challenged the status quo. Feminist Kate Millet put it up this way: "This outrageousness and verve gave us a lot of strength, to be led by somebody absolutely fearless who could take your breath away.... She gave courage to so many of us.... She taught us that it was fun to raise hell and be outrageous and that it was funny to make fun of the whole system."
Journalist Gil Noble, host of ABC's Like It Is, noted: "I got the best education which prepared me for what I do now by listening to people like Flo challenging the system and telling clearly why.... I hope that you will find a way to pass her story on to the generations that are now coming along, because as you heard already she had an extraordinary integrity. She was not about profit, financial profit. She was about struggle. She was always looking for a good fight, the right fight--and she was absolutely fearless and she was relentless."
In Color Me Flo, Flo described her life this way: "I think the way I live is the very best way anybody could live; I don't know anybody who has more fun.... People who behave as though there's something wrong with wanting to improve things are to me pathological, and I can't believe that anybody with taste and brains would want to join them.... 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."
Note: Unless otherwise noted, all quotes from Flo Kennedy in this article are from Color Me Flo: My Hard Life and Good Times, published in 1976 by Prentice Hall.
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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