The Lasting Legacy of Florynce Kennedy, Black Feminist Fighter

Against the Current, No. 152, May/June 2011

Sherie M. Randolph

SEVERAL DECADES AFTER the 1960s political upheavals, very few people recognize the name of the Black feminist lawyer and activist Florynce “Flo” Kennedy (1916-2000). However, during the late 1960s and 1970s Kennedy was the country’s most well-known Black feminist. When reporting on the emergence of the women’s movement, the media covered her early membership in the National Organization for Women (NOW), her leadership of countless guerilla theatre protests and her work as a lawyer helping to repeal New York’s restrictive abortion laws. Indeed, Black feminist Jane Galvin-Lewis and white feminists Gloria Steinem and Ti-Grace Atkinson credit Kennedy with helping to educate a generation of young women about feminism in particular and radical political organizing more generally.

Yet Kennedy’s activism is marginalized or completely erased from most histories of “second wave” feminism. Those rare references to Kennedy usually highlight her as one of the few Black women in the women’s movement. Kennedy is a significant exemplar of the exclusion of key Black feminist organizers from most feminist scholarship on the movement: the erasure of her critical role speaks to the ways in which feminist literature has failed to see Black women as progenitors of contemporary feminism.

In response to such historical effacement, this article resurrects Kennedy’s political contribution to sixties radicalism and uncovers a Black feminist politics and practice that was not only connected to the mainstream feminist movement but was also closely allied to the Black Power struggle. It challenges previously held rigid dichotomies between the Black Power and women’s movements and illuminates the centrality of Black feminism and Flo Kennedy to both movements.

Kennedy asserted that she could “understand feminism [and sexism] better because of the discrimination against Black people.” Her work in Black movements reveals the Black Power movement as a significant force in shaping contemporary feminist struggles.

Earlier feminist movement scholarship ignores or undervalues the connections between Black Power and feminist struggles. Studies of independent Black feminists and the predominantly white feminist movements cite the increased masculinity that kept feminism and Black Power divided. They are not wrong to do so, but positioning Black Power as primarily an antagonistic influence misses what the movement might tell us about how both Black and white feminists understood liberation and revolution.

Connecting both Black and white feminists to organizations such as the Black Panther Party and the Black Power Conferences tells us a great deal about how feminists worked toward reconstructing the society in which they lived. While some recent scholarship has helped to expand our understanding of the Black Power movement’s relationship to feminism, there is still much to be understood about the ways in which the Black Power movement was connected to feminist radicalism. I argue that Kennedy’s example forces us to see how the strategies and theories understood to have originated in Black Power struggles were absorbed by both Black and white feminists.

Florynce Kennedy was simultaneously a Black feminist and a Black Power activist who built alliances between the mostly white feminist and Black Power movements during the postwar period that Black feminist historian Paula Giddings calls the “masculine decade.”

The 1960s witnessed an increased rise in political appeals to Black masculinity as many Black Power radicals demanded that Black women assume an auxiliary role to Black men and address their energy towards the family. Kennedy, like other Black feminists, criticized these antiquated gender norms. Despite her critiques of Black Power and her close relationship to the feminist struggle, Kennedy continued to work inside the Black Power movement as a lawyer and activist.

Many Black Power advocates also criticized the predominantly white women’s movement, arguing that feminism was divisive, racist and a diversion. Black Power organizers often accused Black feminists of merely aping white feminist directives. Kennedy, however, maintained that a movement devoted to ending sexist oppression was vital for both women and men. She worked in predominantly white feminist organizations (such as NOW and the October 17th Movement) throughout the 1960s and 1970s and independent Black feminist organizations (such as the National Black Feminist Organization and Black Women United for Political Action) in the 1970s and 1980s.

Years later, Kennedy commented on what many viewed as the incompatibility between her various political locations, noting that despite her close relationship to the feminist movement and white feminists, Black Power organizers never forced her to “separate… as a feminist from the Black movement.” This was in part because the feminism she espoused was deeply entrenched in the theories of the Black Power struggle, most notably its commitment to ending white supremacy and imperialism.

Moreover, like many other radicals she viewed the Black Power movement as the era’s vanguard movement. Her work inside white feminist organizations emphasized challenging racism. Much of Kennedy’s activism and writing exemplify how she maneuvered between what most contemporary observers and scholars see as inherently oppositional movements, in an attempt to extend Black Power outside of Black Power circles and into primarily white feminist spaces.

The mid-sixties was a watershed period for both the Black Power and women’s movements. Civil rights organizations like SNCC and CORE began to promote Black nationalist strategies. Through the efforts of these organizations and others the Black Power movement began to occupy the national stage and eclipsed the civil rights movement as the leader of the larger Black freedom struggle.

This period was equally pivotal for the predominantly white women’s movement. NOW was founded in 1966, and several local chapters and women’s study groups and organizations emerged throughout the country soon after. The rapid growth of both movements forced shifts in the relationship between postwar radical and liberal organizations: by 1967 both Black Power advocates and feminists were attempting to define new agendas and rethink their ties to the larger postwar struggle. Opportunities arose for allegiances between the two.

Florynce Kennedy’s Early Radicalism

Born in 1916 in Kansas City, Missouri, Kennedy was raised by working-class parents who taught their daughters to challenge white authority at every turn. In 1942 Kennedy moved from Kansas City to New York City, where she found political direction for the lessons she had learned at the feet of her iconoclast parents.

At the age of 26, Kennedy arrived in New York hoping to benefit from the few wartime opportunities now open to African Americans and women. The city’s intellectual and political environment was an escape from the drudgery of Kansas City’s unskilled labor market, where she had worked as an elevator operator and a domestic. It was in the political and social milieu of New York City while a student at Columbia University and its Law School, and then as an up-and-coming lawyer, that Kennedy politically came of age.

Although Kennedy’s work and classes left her little time for political organizing, she took full advantage of Columbia’s radical currents and enrolled in courses on socialism and communism. She also moved through the city’s social movements — attending Adam Clayton Powell’s speeches in Harlem and rallies for Progressive Party presidential hopeful Henry Wallace, and voraciously reading anti-imperialist and anti-racist literature. Kennedy’s experience among the flood of women, mostly white, who entered Columbia University during WWII — and who were barred from admission after the war — led her to connect the oppression of white women and Black people. She began to see an alliance of the two as a force that could be tapped against white male hegemony.

When Kennedy graduated from Columbia Law School in 1951, she became one of the few Black women practicing law in the city. In 1954 she opened her own firm defending the rights of Black artists (such as Billie Holiday) who had been targeted on the basis of the political import of their work. In the early and middle 1960s Kennedy went to work with civil rights organizations (Wednesdays in Mississippi); white leftist organizations (Workers World Party); and Black nationalist organizations (Organization of Afro-American Unity). She published a weekly column in the Queens Voice, a local Black newspaper, and hosted “Opinions,” a 30-minute political talk show on WLIB radio.

Racism Is “Deadly”: The Black Power Movement Should Lead

While Kennedy advocated ending all forms of oppression, she ultimately believed that racism shaped U.S. power relations and was therefore the litmus test for American democracy. Like Black Power leaders and other Black radicals such as Malcolm X, Ella Baker and W.E.B Dubois, Kennedy believed racism affected every major social problem: the exploitation of labor, the policing of sex workers, the abuse of sexual minorities and the oppression of women as a group.

Frequently, Kennedy used the term “niggerizing” as a synonym for oppression, a rhetorical strategy meant to force oppressed people to understand how racist techniques could be deployed against all oppressed people. Although Kennedy understood oppressions as interconnected, she argued that “racism will always be worse than sexism until we find feminists shot in bed like [Black Panthers] Mark Clark and Fred Hampton.” And like other Black Power leaders and some white leftists, she argued that because Black people started this revolution” and spent more time on the front lines, the Black Power movement had a moral claim to vanguard status within the larger struggle.

Though Kennedy privileged Black liberation movements and racial oppression, she still argued that it did not matter which oppression was more lethal: they all “hurt like crazy.” In her opinion the best strategy was to conquer all forms of exploitation. Kennedy believed that a steady and consistent attack against all forms of oppression from a variety of organizational fronts helped to quicken revolutionary change. Kennedy’s theory on challenging oppression helps to explain why she worked in a wide range of organizations and movements throughout her political career.

Her theory on challenging oppression also helps explain her relationship to white leftist — specifically white feminist — organizations. While working in predominantly white left spaces, she demanded that white activists focus on ending racism and support the Black Power struggle. She frequently instructed white radicals on the importance of understanding how power and force circulate in the United States:

“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.”

The Black Power Conference

When SNCC and CORE began to popularize the term “Black Power” in 1966, Kennedy welcomed the ambitions of the young radicals. She hoped that they might harness the revolutionary potential of Black Power’s assertion that Black people constituted a single community within the United States and therefore had a right to shift power relationships.

During the spring and summer of 1967, Kennedy attended the Black Power Conference planning sessions held in Newark. Alongside Black Power leaders such as Omar Ahmed, Nathan Wright and Amiri Baraka, she developed workshops, invited Black delegates from the United States and abroad, and helped create a publicity plan.

The Newark rebellion that occurred only days before the meeting helped to virtually triple the registration rolls from the initial projection of 400 participants. From July 20 to July 24, 1967 over 1,000 Black people flocked to Newark. The rebellion and the numerous Blacks who descended upon the convention forced organizers to engage the concept of Black Power as a tool for revolutionary change.

For Kennedy, the Newark conference and the following Black Power Conferences were important because they emphasized Black people’s use of collective power to challenge American racism and imperialism. Through these conferences Kennedy more fully defined her thinking on power and oppressed people’s ability to use their group strength. She advocated a form of Black Power pluralism as represented by leaders as diverse as Malcolm X (after his split from the Nation of Islam), Adam Clayton Powell and Nathan Wright.

Black Power pluralists argued that the United States was monopolized by white power, which had historically served to keep African Americans from true liberation; in order for Blacks to challenge this oppressive monopoly they needed to move toward a position of community strength. Most pluralists believed that they could transfer their racial solidarity and power into national and local decision-making power. They maintained that as a result Black people, the nation and the world would be fundamentally transformed for the better.

Kennedy credited no other movement with as much potential for illustrating the contradictions of American democracy and thereby rearticulating democratic principles not only for Black people, but for all people. Like many other radicals, she saw the development of Chicano, Native American, and women’s power as an expected consequence of Black Power’s emphasis on liberation and self-determination.

As a co-facilitator (along with Ossie Davis) of the conference’s media workshop, Kennedy used the session to discuss strategies for challenging the media, stressing the importance of sharing tactical information across movement lines. Not long after the workshop began, Kennedy was interrupted by a commotion in the back of the room. Queen Mother Moore was standing up demanding that two white intruders seated in the last row be asked to leave.

Moore, who had founded the Reparations Committee in 1962, was a powerful voice in Black nationalist circles. Her voice bellowed throughout the room: “These white women have to get out! This meeting is for Blacks only!” Activists seated in the front rows turned around to see white feminists and NOW members Ti-Grace Atkinson and Peg Brennan shrinking into their seats as Moore hovered over them.

From the stage Kennedy quickly came to their defense: “These are my guests! I don’t invite people some place then tell them to leave!” But Moore and the other attendees did not care whose guests the women were, they just wanted them out. The Black Power movement was to be unlike the civil rights struggle, where white participation was directly encouraged. In contrast Black Power promoted independent Black politics, and white participation in the conference threatened to disrupt this goal.

As the arguing between Kennedy and Moore escalated the room became tense and bodies began to rise from their seats. Atkinson remembers someone in the crowd threatening to kill Kennedy for bringing the white women to the Black Power Conference. “Do what you have to do,” Kennedy responded. “I’ve lived my life.”

Another unwanted guest in the room escaped the outrage focused on Atkinson and Brennan. The FBI agent monitoring Kennedy at the conference noted how she became louder and more belligerent as she “directed profanity at Negroes present, and refused to ask whites who were present to leave.”

Afraid of what might happen next, Brennan “got out of there fast.” When Kennedy saw Brennan leave she ordered Atkinson to “stay where you are!” Shaking, Atkinson froze, not daring to leave her chair. To her surprise, Moore and her backers eventually gave way. Kennedy and the other facilitators returned to their presentations with Atkinson listening quietly, staring at her feet.

Years later, Atkinson described her decision to attend the conference as “nuts.” Yet she was profoundly appreciative of the opportunity Kennedy provided her to witness the Black Power movement during its formative years. Hearing Black activists plot strategies and formulate workshop resolutions “transformed” her burgeoning feminist politics. Atkinson commented:

“She was always trying to pull it together and [I] have to say in many ways maybe it was a bad idea or clumsy or difficult. But, it’s why people like myself became really transformed not only in terms of politics generally, but because of my feminism. It deepened everything.”

Kennedy began helping white feminists learn from the Black Power movement when she first joined NOW’s New York chapter only eight months before the Black Power Conference. She frequently invited young feminists like Atkinson, Brennan and Anselma Dell’Olio to Black Power and anti-Vietnam War meetings and marches.

Atkinson remembers how Kennedy wanted the young feminists to witness “a group of people in transition and evolving.” The confrontation at the conference workshop reveals a great deal about the value Kennedy placed on white feminists learning from the Black Power struggle and becoming an additional arm in the battle to defeat the repressive state.

“We Were Observing and We Copied”

Only a few weeks later, Kennedy, and other Black Power Conference delegates attended the first convention of the National Conference for New Politics (NCNP) in Chicago from August 31, 1967 to September 1, 1967. The conference’s white organizers especially hoped that the meeting would unite the Black Power and civil rights movements with white liberals and peace movement radicals.

Frustrated by the conference’s failure to include Black people in the early planning stage, some Black delegates walked out and announced their own convention. The majority, who remained, formed their own Black Caucus and demanded support for the Newark Conference resolutions, the organization of “white civilizing” committees in white communities to eliminate racism, support for all wars of national liberation worldwide and 50% voting power on all committees.

While many white organizers supported these demands, much debate arose over the 50% provision, given that Blacks made up only 15-20% of the delegates. Most mainstream news reporters and some white leftists saw the acceptance of the demands as giving Black people an unfair and undemocratic advantage. For the Black Caucus conferees, however, it was important that Black people who fought on the front lines and faced the brunt of the state’s attacks be granted significant power in movement leadership.

In an essay published in the Islamic Press International News Gram, Kennedy challenged those “dissident delegates” and reporters who argued that giving Blacks 50% of the vote meant white activists had “lick[ed Black] boots,” asserting that “white people don’t lick boots when they make a good alliance, Mr. Racist.” The “constructive rise of Black Power may be the only hope that America has,” she explained. Organizers like Kennedy, Jim Forman and H. Rap Brown wanted the white left to understand that in order to be effective anti-racist allies, white activists at the NCNP had to grasp the importance of Black self-determination.

The Black Caucus protest provided a framework for feminists to understand how to organize separately, inspiring women to create their own agenda that challenged the hegemony of male leadership, both at the convention and in the new left movement more generally.

Participants such as Kennedy, Jane Adams (SDS), Shulamith Firestone, Ti-Grace Atkinson and Jo Freeman (SCLC) had been active in organizations or study groups discussing women’s liberation while also often working in civil rights and/or new left movements. Most of these women attended the NCNP Women’s Workshop. However, some felt its leaders focused more on challenging the war than confronting sexist oppression.

According to Freeman, she and Firestone stayed up all night, creating new resolutions that took a more direct stance against women’s oppression. Following the example of the Black Caucus, they demanded 51% of the convention votes, arguing that women represented 51% of the population. They also insisted that the convention support the total equality of women in education and employment, condemn the mass media for perpetuating stereotypes of women, unite with various liberation struggles, and recognize that the majority of Black women are doubly oppressed.

The women threatened to tie up the conference with procedural motions if their resolutions were not debated on the convention floor. The conference organizers finally conceded and added the women’s resolutions to the agenda. However, William Pepper, executive director of NCNP, quickly dismissed the women when it was time to read their resolutions.

Frustrated, several women ran to the microphone and attempted to make their resolutions heard. In an infamous move, Pepper patted “Shulie [Firestone] on the head and said ‘move on little girl we have more important issues to talk about here than Women’s Liberation.’” This incident came to represent the “genesis” of the radical, predominantly white women’s liberation movement.

Kennedy had welcomed the creation of a Women’s Workshop, and insisted that women’s oppression be addressed on the convention floor. Indeed, at the same time Freeman and Firestone were writing their resolutions, Kennedy was in her hotel room coaching Atkinson to write and disseminate a statement that addressed the connections between sexism, racism and imperialism. Each evening Kennedy returned to the room and shared her Black Caucus experiences with Atkinson and other white feminists from NOW. Atkinson noted that Kennedy had a “profound…influence…on some of us…we were observing and we copied” the Black Caucus strategy.

Years later, Atkinson and Brennan remembered that Kennedy helped them to understand the importance of supporting other social movements as part of their feminist politics. Atkinson described how Kennedy pushed white feminists to support Black movements because for “Flo, [it] was really fundamental… to expand understanding and support.”

Kennedy viewed the feminist organizing at the conference as the type of practical borrowing of movement tactics that needed to take place between organizers. Both Kennedy and Atkinson hoped that the (mostly white) Women’s Workshop participants would continue fighting to end racism, sexism, and imperialism after they left the conference.

The statement that Kennedy coached Atkinson to write emphasized the struggles Black people were waging at the conference and throughout the country, describing racial oppression as the most “justifiably immediately pressing” problem. But the statement went a step further by arguing that “the discrimination against Black people should remind us of the discrimination affecting women.”

Using statistics from NOW’s statement of purpose, Atkinson and Kennedy dismissed the then-popular notion that women were not an oppressed group. They urged the Women’s Workshop participants to follow the lead of the Black Caucus and press for their own liberation.

Through a detailed list of suggestions for “immediate action,” Atkinson and Kennedy emphasized the connections between women’s specific oppression and the responsibility of women to support social movements broadly. They called particular attention to the fact that women were not just white. The statement also repeated Kennedy’s points that women should understand their “buying power” as consumers and “enforce their demands on the irresponsible media, business and government”; participate in all activities affecting the community; and “assume leadership in self-determination for women and children.”

However, it was one of the last suggestions that more fully underscored Kennedy’s understanding of the ways in which white women should engage in feminist organizing. As feminists, Kennedy maintained, their politics demanded that they be both anti-racist and anti-imperialist, and be firmly united with these struggles:

“New Politics women should assume their political responsibility by actively supporting protest such as those against the draft and those in Black communities. This support should be actively demonstrated through protest against criminal policing activities and through appearing in court–room [sic] proceedings involving draft resistors, Black protestors, or accused demonstrators. Women must increase their support of those who bear the real burden of their stated moral commitments.”

With the NCNP coming to a close, Kennedy returned to New York, where she would continue to link feminism, anti-racism, and anti-imperialism as a member of NOW.

NOW and Black Power

Although NOW had been founded in Washington, DC in 1966, the New York chapter founded in January of 1967 quickly became the largest and most active wing. Kennedy alongside Black feminists Shirley Chisholm and Pauli Murray and white feminists Kate Millet and NOW’s national president, Betty Friedan, were all early members of NOW.

Kennedy joined the group with the goal of working with both women and men on issues affecting all women. For her that meant not only challenging sexist job discrimination and repressive reproductive laws, but protesting the Vietnam War and fighting for Black liberation. She was especially focused on white feminists supporting the Black Power movement.

Both Kennedy and Atkinson were inspired by the Black Caucus’ success in passing their resolutions at the NCNP and wanted to continue the conference’s discussion of Black Power back home. With this in mind, Atkinson suggested a panel be held at NOW’s November meeting to discuss Black Power’s relationship to the women’s movement. Kennedy and Atkinson invited the organizers of the Newark Black Power Conference, Nathan Wright and Omar Ahmed, as well as Betty Shabazz and a delegate from the NCNP Black Caucus, Verta Mae Smart-Grosvenor.

The chapter’s minutes from the meeting provide rare insights into what some white feminists took away from the discussion. Next to the name of each speaker, NOW’s secretary briefly described the speaker’s affiliation to the Black Power movement and recorded general impressions of her or his presentation. For Black Power leader, Nathan Wright, she derisively wrote out what she believed to be the sum total of his talk — “you are O-pressin’ me!”

The bastardized mimicry of Black dialect illustrates the dismissive ways some white feminists viewed Black Power and its concerns, failing to challenge their own racism. Furthermore, it provides insight into NOW’s repressive organizational culture and the interpersonal and racist power struggles that would plague the organization.

Though the NOW leadership was not interested in the “Black Power and Women” panel, Friedan still hoped that Atkinson could be an asset to the group’s governing board. She viewed Atkinson as a protégé who would eventually outgrow her curiosity about the Black Power and sixties radicalism that Kennedy had sparked. Friedan was confident that Atkinson’s “main line accent and ladylike blond good looks would be perfect… for raising money” from other white women. With these hopes in mind Friedan voted for Atkinson to assume the presidency of NOW’s New York chapter.

It was not long before she regretted her decision. Within months, Friedan tired of Kennedy’s and Atkinson’s continued attempts to radicalize NOW. She saw Atkinson’s fascination with militant radicalism as potentially impeding the growth of the feminist movement and was also highly critical of the new women’s liberation movement.

By the summer of 1968, groups like New York Radical Women and Cell 16 were holding protests and study groups challenging traditional ideas of womanhood. Friedan believed that these “hippie” women borrowed too heavily from the Black Power and new left movements and “because they had cut their political eyeteeth on the doctrines of class warfare applied to the problem of race, they tried to adapt too literally the ideology of class and race warfare to the situations of women.”

Thus, Friedan argued, radical feminists like Atkinson undermined the women’s movement with their abstract ideas of women’s separatism, “manhatred” and “sex warfare.” This insistence on dividing “legitimate” feminist concerns from the radical feminists’ interest in Black Power and new left radicalism plagued the New York NOW chapter. The conflict came to a head during the October 17, 1968 membership meeting.

Forming the October 17th Movement

Tension between NOW’s national leadership and the radical feminists in the New York chapter had been growing steadily ever since the “Black Power and Women” panel. It was sharpened after Atkinson and Kennedy took up the cause of Valerie Solanas. Solanas was the author of The SCUM [Society for Cutting Up Men] Manifesto and had shot Andy Warhol because she claimed he defrauded her.

That summer Kennedy agreed to represent Solanas. She and Atkinson attempted to paint Solanas as a radical feminist taking up arms against sexist oppression. Friedan was infuriated that they and other NOW feminists were aligning themselves with this cause or with radicalism more generally.

Meanwhile, NOW’s more radical feminists were discussing ways to transform the organization so that it would fight not simply to “get women into positions of power” but to “destroy the positions of power.” Friedan tried to stop the “crazies” from taking over the organization by voting against Atkinson’s reelection to the presidency.

Friedan believed that Atkinson knew she would not be reelected, and that in an effort to thwart the inevitable she “came up with a proposal to abolish the office of president and the democratic election of officers… that would enable the ‘crazies’ to take over and manipulate decisions, with no accountability to membership.” Atkinson, on the other hand, remembered her proposal to restructure the presidency as an effort to help make NOW more efficient and to keep apace of the participatory model of leadership that was a common philosophy circulating in Black and new left movements.

A few days before NOW’s membership meeting, a small group of radical feminists met at Atkinson’s apartment to discuss how they could push the chapter in a new direction and resolve the growing factionalism. Some of the women even threatened to leave the organization if their motion for rotating presidents did not pass.

On the day of the membership meeting, Atkinson remained silent while Kennedy and others “urged an experiment in participatory democracy.” Kennedy remembers the discussion being very contentious as some of the NOW leaders began a litany of “booing and hissing” as the radical feminists presented their ideas. Not surprisingly, the motion to create a rotating presidency was defeated.

Atkinson left the meeting assuming that her fellow feminists would fulfill their original threat to resign. She went home and wrote a letter resigning from NOW and a press release criticizing NOW for “advocating hierarchy of offices” and not understanding that “the fight against unequal power relationships between men and women necessitates fighting unequal power everyplace.” She soon realized that she “was the only one who resigned.” Atkinson recalled Friedan being “shocked because… [she] thought all of the young women were going to leave with [me].” Emboldened by this discovery, Friedan proceeded to give public statements that described how Atkinson left NOW alone.

Kennedy had never promised to leave NOW if the vote was defeated. She intended to stay even though she was not pleased with the outcome of the meeting. But once Friedan released statements deriding Atkinson as marginal and insignificant to the women’s movement, she reversed her course and resigned immediately. “I saw the importance of a feminist movement,” she says, “and stayed in there because I wanted to do anything I could to keep it alive, but when I saw how retarded NOW was, I thought, ‘my God, who needs this?’”

Kennedy’s resignation letter listed many reasons for leaving NOW, particularly the harassment of radical feminists who attempted to push the organization in a more progressive direction. Kennedy was outraged at Friedan’s racism and her failure to support Black liberation and antiwar movements. Kennedy maintained that she was not the type of activist who wrestled for control over an organization and in moments like these, she recalled thinking, “I can’t waste my time on this bullshit” and often went “off and set up a [new] committee.”

Atkinson and Kennedy were the only two members to officially resign from NOW, forming a new radical feminist group, the October 17th Movement (named for the day Atkinson left NOW). The October 17th Movement’s story occupies a prominent place in the birth of the predominantly white radical feminist struggle and is commonly cited as an example of the split between liberal and radical feminism, or between older and younger generations of white feminists.

Missing from this oft-told story is the centrality of Black feminist Flo Kennedy and her leadership in helping to move young feminists in NOW toward a more expansive view of feminism. Indeed, the October 17th Movement reflected Kennedy’s concern that the feminist movement concentrate on the connections between sexism, imperialism and racism. Atkinson often described the October 17th Movement as “an action coalition of the student movement, the women’s movement and the Negro movement” and determined to end all forms of oppression.

While NOW’s failure to view feminism in more comprehensive terms helped to fuel the creation of the October 17th Movement and radical feminism, Kennedy stood squarely on the other end, helping to push young white feminists toward an intersectional Black feminist praxis that centered attention to Black Power.

The story of how the mostly white radical feminist movement was directly influenced by Black Power and Flo Kennedy helps us to move Black feminism and Black Power out of the margins of second wave feminist movement history and closer to its center. While the October 17th Movement would later change its name to The Feminists and lose much of its anti-racist ideological agenda — and thus all of its Black membership — its origins offer a window onto a moment when radical white feminists attempted to create a Black feminist intersectional praxis.

As a founder of the radical feminist movement, Kennedy insisted that the movement live up to its “radical” title by looking beyond a limited focus on the oppression of white women. Her story also demonstrates that while sixties movements and organizations often erected walls, those boundaries (especially during the nascent period) were far more porous than scholars have previously recognized.

Florynce Kennedy was a major force in the cross-fertilization of movement ideas and the forging of important political alliances. She understood that “whether you’re fighting for Women’s Liberation or …Black Liberation, you’re fighting the same enemies.” Her ultimate goal was that organizations and activists focus on defeating what she argued was the real oppressor: “the racist sexist genocidal establishment.”

Works Cited

Alice Echols, Daring to be Bad: Radical Feminism in America, 1967-1975 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989).

Robin Kelley, Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination (Boston: Beacon Press, 2002).

Flo Kennedy, Color Me Flo: My Hard Life and Good Times (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1976).

Benita Roth, Separate Roads to Feminism: Black, Chicana, and White Feminist Movements in America’s Second Wave (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

Florynce Kennedy Papers, unprocessed manuscript collection, in the possession of Joyce Kennedy-Banks, East Orange, New Jersey.

copyright by Sherie M. Randolph

ATC 152, May-June 2011


  1. Hi Sherrie,
    We spoke a few years back in connection with a book (maybe film?) you were working one re Flo. Are these excerpts from your book? Did you publish in print (in addition to online?) I applaud your efforts to set the record correctly. Flo has still never received the acknowledgement she truly deserves. She was the subject of my thesis at New College (now defunct after 25 years). I now jest that New College lost their accreditation because they gave the likes of me (a fried of Flo’s) my B.S. Do you happen to know the whereabouts of all her reels of The Flo Kennedy Show? Thanks. Pam (Peg’s daughter)

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