February 11, 1916 – December 21, 2000
Florynce Rae Kennedy was born in Kansas City, Missouri, the second of Wiley and Zella Kennedy’s five daughters on February 11, 1916. Her father, Wiley Kennedy, was a Pullman porter who later owned a taxi business. Though raised during the Great Depression, a time of great lack, poverty, and racism, Florynce had a happy childhood. Her family lived among the presence of the Ku Klux Klan who were constantly trying to drive them out of the neighborhood. Wiley Kennedy had to arm himself with a shotgun in order to protect his family and ward off the Klan. Florynce remembered and later commented:
"My parents gave us a fantastic sense of security and worth. By the time the bigots got around to telling us that we were nobody, we already knew we were somebody."
Kennedy graduated at the top of her class at Lincoln High School. She worked many jobs including operating elevators. She was also the owner of a Hat Shop.
Flo Rae Kennedy often dressed in a cowboy hat, pink sunglasses and false eyelashes, which she called her “Daffy Duck” lashes. These were her trademark in public appearances and were very effective.
After the death of her mother Zella in 1942, Kennedy left Missouri for New York City, moving to an apartment in Harlem with her sister Grayce. Of the move to New York she commented, "I really didn't come here to go to school, but the schools were here, so I went."
In 1944 she began classes at Columbia University School of General Studies, majoring in pre-law and graduated in 1949. However, when she applied to the university's law school, she was refused admission. In her autobiography Kennedy wrote:
“The Associate Dean, Willis Reese, told me I had been rejected not because I was a Black but because I was a woman. So I wrote him a letter saying that whatever the reason was, it felt the same to me, and some of my more cynical friends thought I had been discriminated against because I was Black.”
Kennedy met with the Dean and threatened to sue the school. They admitted her. In her class, there were eight women, she was the only African American. It was her paper written in her sociology class at Columbia University were Kennedy sparked her activism in 1946. Her commentary correlated “Women and Negroes” in the hopes to hasten an alliance of both. But she was always fueled by this fire of activism because after graduating high school, she organized a successful boycott against a Coca-Cola bottler who refused to hire black truck drivers. So this activism for the underdog was in her blood.
In 1951 Flo Kennedy was the second African-American woman to graduate from Columbia Law School (the first was Elreda Alexander in 1945). After passing the New York Bar in 1952, Kennedy worked as a clerk in a law firm in Manhattan, then opened her own private practice in 1954.
Before spreading her wings as a staunch advocate for feminism, some of her first cases were matrimonial work, and some assigned criminal cases. She was a member of the Young Democrats and later formed a legal partnership with Billie Holiday’s lawyer. They represented the singer who was facing drug charges. Later, Kennedy became the lawyer representing the Billie Holiday’s estate and also that of Charlie Parker.
Activist for Feminism & Civil Rights
She worked as an activist for feminism and civil rights, and the cases she took on increasingly tended to be related to these causes.
The Miss America protest in 1968 was used as a tool to demonstrate the "exploitation of women" Randolph noted in her book, Florynce "Flo" Kennedy: The Life of a Black Feminist Radical. Kennedy played a significant role by recruiting other black feminists to this protest. During the protest multiple women were arrested and Kennedy took on their cases as their attorney.
Another of Kennedy's causes was women's liberation -- for all women, not just African-American women. Flo’s intention urged the two races to work together.
Helen H. King quoted Kennedy in Ebony Magazine as saying:
"It is obvious that many black women are not prepared to work with whites in liberation because of the divide and conquer techniques always employed by an exploitative society. However, in many towns there are movements where black and white women are working one to one (in the movement)…. It's the same gig wherever you are. Whether you're fighting for women's lib or just Black lib, you're fighting the same enemies."
Kennedy helped found the Women's Political Caucus and the National Black Feminist Organization. She was an original member of the National Organization for Women (NOW) and joined the group Radical Women to protest the 1968 Miss America pageant in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Kennedy also founded the National Feminist Party, which in 1971 nominated Representative Shirley Chisholm (D-NY), the first African-American woman elected to Congress, for president. Kennedy even protested the shortage of female bathrooms at Harvard University by leading a mass urination on the campus grounds.
In 1966, Flo and others picketed and lobbied the media over their representation of Black people. She stated that she would lead boycotts of major advertisers if they did not feature Black people in their ads. She attended all three Black Power Conferences and represented prominent Black Panthers such as H. Rap Brow and Assata Shakur; as well as prominent radical feminist Valerie Solanas in the attempted murder trial of Andy Warhol.
On the abortion rights front, Kennedy organized feminist lawyers in 1969 to challenge the constitutionality of New York State's antiabortion laws. She collaborated on briefs and cross-examined witnesses in pretrial hearings. Randolph (in her book, Florynce "Flo" Kennedy: The Life of a Black Feminist Radical), stated: "This case was one of the first to use women who suffered from illegal abortions as expert witnesses instead of relying on physicians. These tactics were eventually used in the Roe v. Wade case, in 1973, which overturned restrictive abortion laws." Kennedy was a lawyer for the Women's Health Collective and 350 plaintiffs in a similar lawsuit about abortion in New York.
The laws were overturned in 1970 and in 1971, Florynce Kennedy co-authored the book, “Abortion Rap” with Diane Schulder. It one of the first books on abortion.
Kennedy even took on the Roman Catholic Church by filing a tax evasion charge to the Internal Revenue Service, claiming that the church's vocal and financial campaign against abortion breeched its tax-exempt status and violated the federal constitution's call for the separation of church and state.
Despite quitting her lecture circuit due to back pains and ill health, Kennedy continued her activism throughout her life and produced a weekly interview show on cable TV. Throughout her career she lectured at more than 200 colleges and universities.
Kennedy married Charles Dye in 1957, had no children and he later died of alcoholism in or around 1960. He was in his mid 30s. She never remarried and her views on marriage was quoted from her monograph called "The Case Against Marriage", which she later summarized in her autobiography: “...the idea being that marriage is a crock. Why should you lock yourself in the bathroom just because you have to go three times a day?” Flo celebrated her 70th birthday in 1986 at the New York City Play Boy Club, a gala sponsored by Christie Hefner (Hugh Hefner’s daughter). When asked about her Mass Urination Protest on Harvard University grounds, she said: “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 stop to wonder why I'm not like other people. The mystery to me is why more people aren't like me!” Indeed Flo, why aren’t there more people like you?! Kennedy summed up her protest strategy as "Mak[ing] white people nervous." My guess, this was her rebuttal to the KKK tactics from her childhood.She spent much of her later years confined to a wheelchair and died at her home in Manhattan on December 22, 2000, at the age of 84.
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