Florynce R. Kennedy called herself “radicalism’s rudest mouth,” a description that seemed justified nearly every time she made a public utterance.
She called military spending a new social disease--"Pentagonorrhea.” She said the best protest tactic was to “make white people nervous.’ And she once silenced a male heckler who asked whether she was a lesbian by saying: “Are you my alternative?”
Kennedy, an irrepressible and irreverent veteran of battles for civil rights and women’s equality, died in New York on Dec. 21. She was 84.
One of the first black women to graduate from Columbia University’s law school, she was a flamboyant figure in cowboy hat and boots who became a political touchstone for many members of the peace, women’s and black power movements.
She founded the Feminist Party, which in 1972 nominated Rep. Shirley Chisholm of New York as a candidate for president. In 1981, she wrote an influential handbook on sex harassment, “Sex Discrimination in Employment: An Analysis and Guide for Practitioner and Student.” Her legal clients included the estates of jazz greats Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker, and civil rights leader H. Rap Brown.
Gloria Steinem, who joined Kennedy on the lecture circuit in the 1970s, once called her an “outrageous, imaginative, humorous and witty spokeswoman for social justice” with a pronounced talent for stirring things up.
“Five minutes with Flo,” said Steinem, the founder of Ms. magazine, “will change your life.”
Kennedy was born and raised in a mostly white neighborhood in Kansas City, Mo., in a shack that her father once protected from the Ku Klux Klan with a gun.
Her mother, Zella, worked mostly at home, raising Kennedy and her four sisters, but was ambitious for her children and helped them learn to laugh at life even when they were poor. She “epitomized hope,” Kennedy recalled in her 1976 autobiography, planting rosebushes even though their yard was too shady for blooms.
Her father, Wiley, was a Pullman porter who later ran his own taxi service. Once, when Kennedy was threatened with a whipping for hitting a boy at school, her father went to see the principal with a gun in his hand and said, “You don’t ever hit my girls, or I will kill you.”
That incident made a strong impression on 10-year-old Kennedy. “I suspect,” she wrote many years later in “Color Me Flo: My Hard Life and Good Times,” “that that’s why I don’t have the right attitude toward authority today.”
Kennedy wanted to go to college but graduated from high school at a time when higher education for blacks was “really kind of unheard of.” To bide her time and earn some money, she ran a hat shop in Kansas City. But she also helped organize a boycott of the local Coca-Cola bottler for refusing to hire black truck drivers.
In 1942, she moved to New York City. In 1944, when she was 28, she ignored friends and family who were counseling her to become a nurse or a teacher and enrolled in pre-law studies at Columbia.
She graduated with an A average but was rejected when she applied to the law school. The reason, she was told, was that she was a woman, but Kennedy suspected that being black was a greater factor.
“I said, ‘If you have admitted any white man with lower grades than mine, then I want to get in, too,’ ” she wrote in her autobiography.
After threatening to sue, she was admitted to Columbia’s law school in 1948, one of eight women and the only black person in her class, and earned her law degree in 1951. She set up her own practice in 1953.
As the lawyer for the Holiday and Parker estates, she successfully fought to recoup lost royalties. But the battle so disillusioned her that she gave up her practice and turned to activism full-time.
In 1966, Kennedy founded the Media Workshop to combat racism in the news media and advertising. One of her first targets was the New York advertising agency Benton & Bowles. When the firm refused to provide information on its hiring and programming practices, Kennedy led a group of protesters to its 5th Avenue offices and picketed with signs saying, “Is There a Bigot in Your Market Basket?” The agency soon invited them upstairs, a victory for Kennedy that gave rise to her favorite rule of social action: “When you want to get to the suites, start in the streets.”
Steinem recalled that Kennedy always urged direct action. “I remember her saying to me . . . that if you’re lying in a ditch with a truck on your ankles, you don’t send somebody out to find out how much it weighs--you get it off.”
Kennedy led many high-profile boycotts in the 1960s and ‘70s, including picketing the Colgate-Palmolive building on Park Avenue with members of the National Organization for Women and protesting at CBS headquarters, where she was arrested for refusing to leave the building. She joined in rallies against President Richard Nixon and in abortion rights rallies and helped stage a “pee-in” at Harvard to protest the lack of women’s restrooms. She picketed the Miss America pageant in the late 1960s and called that demonstration “more fun than the best cocktail party I ever went to.”
In 1969, she led a challenge to the constitutionality of New York’s abortion law, which was liberalized by the state Legislature the following year.
By the end of the 1990s, she was bedridden after a number of health crises, including two strokes, but she was still crusading. In 1997, when she was 81, she was pressing a sexual harassment case against the National Urban League, one of the largest civil rights groups in the country.
“I’m just a loudmouthed, middle-aged colored lady with a fused spine and three feet of intestines missing, and a lot of people think I’m crazy,” she had written in 1976. “Maybe you do, too, but I never stop to wonder why I’m not like other people. The mystery to me is why more people aren’t like me.”
Kennedy was married briefly in the 1950s to science-fiction writer Charlie Dudley Dye. She never remarried or had children. She is survived by three sisters.