In today’s political and social climate, it is vitally important that we remember Florynce Kennedy (1916-2000), a woman who epitomized intersectional activism particularly during the 60s and 70s to stand up for civil rights, feminism and gay rights. A brilliant and fiercely outspoken attorney and organizer, Ms. Kennedy was never afraid to take on huge corporate powers such as Coca-Cola and CBS or challenge government to advocate for fair and equal treatment for all.
The second of five daughters, Floyrnce Kennedy was born in Kansas City, MO. Early on, she learned an appreciation for challenging so-called authority and the status quo when her father, a Pullman porter, purchased a house in a predominantly white neighborhood. When the KKK attempted to oust Mr. Kennedy and his family, he met with them a gun and promised to use it. The supremacist terrorist group never bothered the Kennedys again.
Though a stellar student, Ms. Kennedy held off attending college for a decade and opted to work a variety of different jobs including owning a hat business with her sister. It was during this break in her education that she organized a boycott of Coca-Cola when the local facility refused to hire Black truck drivers.
Every form of bigotry can be found in ample supply in the legal system of our country. –Florynce Kennedy
When Ms. Kennedy lost her mother to cancer, she moved to New York and attended Columbia University in 1944 where she earned a bachelor’s degree in pre-law and graduated with honors. She applied to Columbia Law School in 1948 but was denied admission by the dean because of her gender. Ms. Kennedy refused to accept the dean’s decision, met with him personally, raised hell and threated to file a discrimination suit. She was then, of course, admitted and would be the only Black person, and just one of eight women, in her class. In 1951, she became the second Black woman ever to graduate from Columbia Law School.
A few years later, Ms. Kennedy opened her own practice and made a habit of taking on clients and cases that would specifically address issues of discrimination and disparities in law adjudication. Her clients included H. Rap Brown, the estate of Billie Holiday, the estate of Charlie Parker and a female member of the Black Liberation Front charged with bank robbery. She also represented 21 members of the eastern branch of the Black Panther Party in a case that would culminate in one of the longest political trials in New York’s History; her clients were acquitted.
Working as an attorney proved to be an uphill battle for Ms. Kennedy as being Black and female in the industry made her quite the outlier. The cases came few and far between often resulting in a lack of steady income. One Christmas season, she even had to work at Bloomingdale’s to pay her office rent. On top of finance challenges, Ms. Kennedy often encountered racism in the court system and wondered whether or not her involvement in law could impact positive social change.
The biggest sin is sitting on your ass. – Florynce Kennedy
During the 60s, she began to take on more of a grassroots approach to activism by organizing boycotts of several large corporations, leading anti-Vietnam and pro-liberation initiatives and creating various anti-discrimination organizations. In 1966, she created Media Workshop which fought racism and discrimination in the media and specifically boycotted advertisers who sold to Blacks but failed to feature Blacks in their ads. She helped found the Women’s Political Caucus and the National Black Feminist Organization. Through these groups, she encouraged women of all colors to work together to end discrimination. She also was an original member of the National Organization for Women (NOW) and a member of Radical Women, a group that organized to protest the 1968 Miss America pageant. In 1971, she founded the Feminist Party to support Shirley Chisolm’s (the first Black woman to serve in Congress) presidential campaign.
My personal favorite protest of Ms. Kennedy’s was her coordination of a mass urination on the grounds of Harvard University to protest the shortage of female bathrooms on campus.
If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament. – Florynce Kennedy
Though Ms. Kennedy became widely known for her sharp tongue, quick wit and ongoing activism during the 60s and 70s, she still used her legal chops to make strides in equality. In 1969, she organized a group of feminist lawyers in New York to challenge the state’s anti-abortion laws. The next year, those laws were overturned and she documented the experience by co-writing a book called Abortion Rap. Ms. Kennedy also filed tax evasion charges with the IRS against the Roman Catholic Church citing that its use of resources to finance anti-abortion campaigns was a direct breech of its tax-exempt status and violated federal church and state separation.
Ms. Kennedy continued to stick up for all marginalized groups, including sex workers and the poor throughout the rest of her life. Before she passed away, she produced a weekly talk show on cable TV, lectured at hundreds of colleges and universities and wrote an autobiography.