Kennedy, Florynce Rae “Flo”
Kennedy, Florynce Rae “Flo”
- Rhaisa K. Williams
Kennedy, Florynce Rae “Flo” (11 Feb. 1916–23 Dec. 2000), black feminist, attorney, and activist, was born in Kansas City, Missouri, the second of five daughters of Wiley Kennedy, a headwaiter, and Zella Jackman. In Kennedy’s published memoir Color Me Flo, she wrote that her father worked as a Pullman porter, a very prestigious job for African American men to hold during the early- to mid-twentieth century. However, the Pullman porter registry contains no evidence of Wiley Kennedy’s employment.
Growing up under Jim Crow laws in Kansas City, her family was the first black family to move into an all-white neighborhood and they endured intense racial hostility from their neighbors. Kennedy was a teenager during the Great Depression. To help her parents make ends meet, she and her sister worked as domestics in the homes of white families, which also exposed her to racism. Kennedy’s mother, who was born to a middle-class black family, was unusually lenient with her daughters, encouraging them to explore their gender and sexual freedom at young ages. Kennedy would credit her parents’ determination in the face of racism and her mother’s untraditional parenting for her gender and racial politics. Kennedy graduated with high honors from Lincoln High School, a top-performing secondary school in Kansas City, in 1934. After Kennedy’s mother died from breast cancer in November 1941, Kennedy, Grayce, and Evelyn assumed care of their two youngest sisters, Joyce and Faye.
In 1942, while on a train ride with her sister Grayce from Kansas City to Chicago, Kennedy and her sister staged an impromptu sit-in at a coffee shop in Monroe City, Missouri when they were refused service because they were black. When a group of white patrons violently removed Kennedy and her sister, Kennedy sustained severe injuries to her spine, an injury that limited her mobility for the rest of her life. The following year Kennedy followed Gracye to Harlem. Throughout New York City white landlords regularly rented substandard buildings to black people for high amounts. Kennedy and her sister moved into such a building, and when the landlord ignored their complaints, Kennedy threatened to sue. The landlord complied with their wishes to avoid a possible lawsuit, and Kennedy realized that the courts could be useful in fighting discrimination. Empowered by the experience, Kennedy connected with Harrison Jackson, the main attorney at the Abyssinian Church, associated with councilman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. With Jackson’s counsel, Kennedy sued the train company and coffee shop in Monroe City for medical expenses and pain and suffering. The defendants settled, further emboldening Kennedy to turn to law.
In 1945, at the age of twenty-nine, Kennedy entered Columbia University’s School of General Education for adults. After graduating in 1949 she entered Columbia University Law School after threatening to sue the admissions for initially rejecting her application on the grounds of racial discrimination. Often the only woman and black person in her law classes, Kennedy quickly felt alienated. Her time as a law student also began her growing disillusionment with law and the courts as a space to fight against injustice, realizing through her classwork that the courts often acted as the legal arm to uphold oppressive structures.
After receiving her J.D. in 1951, Kennedy opened the first private practice owned by a black woman in midtown Manhattan in 1954. By 1957 Donald Wilkes and David Fields, two white male attorneys, joined her and she renamed her practice Wilkes, Kennedy, and Fields. The same year, she married science-fiction novelist Charles Dye after a quick courtship. Dye, who was white, nine years younger than Kennedy, and made considerably less money, oversaw domestic duties while Kennedy provided the income. He was also an emotionally and verbally abusive alcoholic. By 1959 they were separated and before Kennedy could file divorce papers, Dye died from cirrhosis of the liver.
Through Wilkes’ previous clients, the practice began representing creative artists. In 1959 Kennedy represented jazz singer Billie Holiday who was indicted for not receiving permission to perform internationally because she had been previously convicted for narcotics possession and use. After Holiday died on 22 July 1959, Kennedy represented the singer’s husband and executor of her estate, Louis McKay, to ensure Holiday’s estate was rightfully compensated in the continued use and distribution of the singer’s image and music. Kennedy also represented Doris Parker, widow and executor of jazz saxophonist Charlie “Bird” Parker’s estate. Kennedy’s representation of Parker’s and Holiday’s estates taught Kennedy about intellectual property and exposed her to the legal exploitation of record and advertising companies. Both cases raised Kennedy’s national profile as an astute attorney.
After closing her private practice due to financial constraints, Kennedy continued defending and providing legal counsel for people whose politics she supported or who were engaged in fights she believed in. However, she increasingly treated the legal system and the courts as one component of the fight against racial, sexual, and economic discrimination. In doing so she used her media savvy in concert with court cases to ensure the people she represented were not buried beneath negative media portrayals. In 1968 Kennedy defended Valerie Solanas, the feminist artist who shot pop artist Andy Warhol. Before Kennedy’s counsel, the courts and media framed Solanas as a deranged fan. However, Solanas accused Warhol of stealing her work and maintained she shot him out of frustration. Kennedy, too, saw Solanas’s actions as born out of frustration with the financial exploitation that men in power exercised over women, and through protests and press conferences, helped reframe Solanas as a politically motivated feminist. Kennedy was also one of the lead attorneys in the influential class action suit Abramowicz v. Lefkowitz that repealed New York State’s restrictive abortion laws. Settled in 1971 the case was the first to use women who survived the dangers of illegal abortions as expert witnesses, setting the stage for the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973.
Throughout her legal career Kennedy regularly shared her opinions in various venues, such as her weekly column “Once Upon a Week,” her radio show, and her public broadcast television show The Flo Kennedy Show (aired from the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s). Kennedy honed her instrumentalization of the media when she created the Media Workshop in 1966. Formed at the same time Kennedy helped organize the inaugural Black Power Conference in Newark, New Jersey, one of the objectives of the Media Workshop was to “revolutionize the buying practice of the apathetic consumers and through buying clubs and cooperatives to make Black Power a reality” (Randolph, p. 103). Always concerned with the complex interlacing of power and oppression, Kennedy hoped the Media Workshop would help black and brown people recognize their economic potential that could then lead into political power. Through the Media Workshop, Kennedy helped organize protests against Benton and Bowles, a premier advertising agency that represented popular household brands such as General Foods and Proctor and Gamble; and helped defend Representative Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. from being unseated in the 1966 reelection when his support for President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty program upset conservative politicians.
Kennedy continued to intersect media and law to support members of the Black Power Movement. She defended H. Rap Brown, chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, when he was wrongfully arrested and charged with inciting a riot during a speech he gave on 24 July 1967 in Cambridge, Maryland. She also helped defend Black Panther members Angela Davis, Assata Shakur, and Afeni Shakur when they were arrested for numerous charges, that ranged from bank robbery to murder.
One of Kennedy’s lasting legacies was her great skill at coalition-building. She was an original and instrumental member in the feminist organizations National Organization for Women (NOW) and the National Women’s Political Caucus, and was influential in the founding of the National Black Feminist Organization. In 1971 she formed the Feminist Party, an interracial, black feminist-led organization that supported black feminist politics, including the presidential candidacy of Shirley Chisolm in 1972. She strategically used her prowess in fundraising and organizing demonstrations to garner support across racial and gender categories. While organizing for the Black Power movement, Kennedy invited white feminists from NOW to be part of the demonstrations; that in turn, educated white feminists on black struggle and organizing methods. Kennedy had a close and profound relationship with Ti-Grace Atkinson who, through her friendship with Kennedy, learned and tailored her feminist politics, eventually establishing the group The Feminists.
Largely known as the “biggest, loudest and, indisputably, the rudest mouth” among radicals and feminist-activists (Burstein), and instantly recognizable by her cowboy hats and sunglasses, Kennedy continued supporting political and social activists and educating the public on issues through her talk show, The Flo Kennedy Show, and speaking engagements throughout the 1980s and 1990s, despite worsening health issues. Kennedy died in New York City. Describing herself as “too erratic to lead and too undisciplined to follow” (Randolph, p. 47), Kennedy was a pivotal and wide-reaching figure, drawing bridges between the civil rights, Black Power, feminist, antiwar, and reproductive rights movements that helped define the twentieth century.
The papers of Florynce Kennedy are found at the Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University. Kennedy’s writings include a memoir, Color Me Flo: My Hard Life and Good Times (1976)Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat and Abortion Rap (1971), co-authored with Diane SchulderFind it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat, consisting of testimonies from Abramowicz v. Lefkowitz. A recent biography is Sherie Randolph, Florynce “Flo” Kennedy: The Life of a Black Feminist Radical (2015)Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat. See also Patricia Burstein, “Lawyer Flo Kennedy Enjoys Her Reputation as Radicalism’s Rudest Mouth,” People Magazine, 14 Apr. 1975Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat. An obituary appeared in The New York Times on 23 Dec. 2000.
- Chisholm, Shirley (30 November 1924–01 January 2005), first African-American congresswoman and educator
- Holiday, Billie (1915-1959), singer
- Johnson, Lyndon Baines (27 August 1908–22 January 1973), thirty-sixth president of the United States
- Parker, Charlie (29 August 1920–12 March 1955), alto saxophonist and jazz composer, also nicknamed "Bird" and "Yardbird"
- Powell, Adam Clayton, Jr. (1908-1972), minister and congressman
- Warhol, Andy (1928-1987), artist and filmmaker