Florynce Kennedy & Black Feminism

Against the Current, No. 187, March/April 2017

Angela Hubler

Florynce “Flo” Kennedy:
The Life of a Black Feminist Radical
By Sherie M. Randolph
The University of North Carolina Press, 2015, 328 pages, $30 hardcover.

FLORYNCE KENNEDY (1916-2000) is probably most commonly remembered for her distinctive appearance — sporting one of her many cowboy hats and more than one political button — and her profane, humorous, and witty manner of speaking. About reproductive justice, for example, Flo coined the memorable line, “If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.” (175)

Sherie M. Randolph’s stimulating and very readable Florynce “Flo” Kennedy: the Life of a Black Feminist Radical persuasively shows that Flo’s intellectual and political significance ran much deeper than this humor. At the same time, she offers an insightful analysis of the way in which Flo effectively used her humor for political effect.

Randolph is an associate professor of History at the Georgia Institute of Technology. In this book, the first biography of Kennedy, Randolph makes a substantial addition to the history of 20th-century social movements: Black Power, feminism, civil rights, the New Left. (See Sherie M. Randolph’s “The Lasting Legacy of Florynce Kennedy, Black Feminist Fighter,” ATC 152, https://www.solidarity-us.org/node/3272.)

Randolph argues that “the boundaries around movements were far more porous than scholars assumed” and that “the connections that Kennedy forged between Black Power advocates and emerging white feminists provided feminists with a vocabulary for describing racial and gender oppression and fueled the creation of broad-based antiracist alliances.” (2, 5)

Thus, Randolph enriches and deepens our understanding of what has become a widely acknowledged critique of mainstream feminism after World War II, that white-dominated feminist organizations failed to address the needs of women of color, undermining their very ability to create a truly liberatory and inclusive movement.

Randolph shows, however, that  “black women were present at the creation of post-war feminist movements and articulated a black feminist agenda based on their position as African-American women who experienced sexist and racist discrimination in forms that could not be pulled apart and fought separately.” (2)

Randolph draws on extensive research, including Kennedy’s papers, archives and essays, videos from “The Flo Kennedy Show,” and dozens of interviews with Kennedy’s sisters and significant figures in 20th-century feminism and the Black Power Movement, from Ti-Grace Atkinson to Assata Shakur.

A Life of Resistance

Kennedy’s early life exposed her both to race and gender-based oppression and resistance to it. Kennedy was born in 1916 in Kansas City, Missouri, which remains one of the most segregated cities in the country. She recalled the courage of her mother, Zella, in dispersing a group of armed white men attempting to force the Kennedys out of the home they owned in a white neighborhood.

While Zella and her husband Wiley sought help from the police and an attorney, they were assured of their rights to their home, but little else. Not long after, Wiley used physical force to defend the safety of his home. Kennedy recounted, “Daddy was ready to shoot somebody and kill him to keep our house.” (13)

Wiley also taught his five daughters “never take any shit,” advice they relied upon when they chased down white bullies who taunted them on their walk to school. In the 1930s, Kennedy participated in what she called “my first real political action,” a boycott of Coke for “refusing to hire black drivers” organized by the NAACP. (27, 28)

Another act of political defiance in 1942 resulted in a spine injury that continued to plague her throughout her life, when Flo and her sister refused to leave a segregated café while traveling by bus from Kansas City to Chicago. Soon after, Kennedy followed her sister to New York City, where she secured the assistance of Adam Clayton Powell’s office in successfully suing the businesses responsible for her back injury.

While working first at the Veterans Administration and then at the Columbia Library, Kennedy began attending night school at Columbia in pursuit of the college degree that she had long dreamed of but  was “kind of unheard of” for a Black woman in Missouri. (35)

At Columbia, Kennedy continued to develop her analysis of oppression. One of her papers critiqued the institution of marriage, and another, “A Comparative Study: Accentuating the Similarities of the Societal Position of Women and Negroes,” noted that economic independence from white men was limited in each group.

Kennedy identified a class with Marxist sociologist Bernhard Stern as an intellectual “turning point,” as she considered communism as a “viable alternative to a capitalist society that was based on racial oppression.” (47)

After graduation, Kennedy applied to Columbia Law School in 1948. She said, “I’d always wanted to be a lawyer — not only to right wrongs, but because most of the people I knew who were lawyers were better off than others.” (37) However, Kennedy’s application was rejected. Kennedy met with the assistant dean to find out the basis of this rejection, wearing, she says, “a Henry Wallace for President” button, essentially declaring “I am a communist.” (48)

While Kennedy was informed that she was rejected because of her sex rather than her race, her demand that she be admitted if any white man with grades lower than hers had been accepted. This resulted in her matriculation in a class of 10 women and 195 men. Law school, however, quickly disillusioned Kennedy about the potential of the law as a way of achieving justice for Blacks: “They want to divorce you from your nigger state, to de-niggerize you, but they think being de-niggerized means living in your head and not in your heart or your soul or your body.” (54)

Legal and Political Activism

When Kennedy graduated with her law degree, she was one of fewer than 100 Black women lawyers in the nation. Opportunities for women, especially Black women, were extremely limited. Thus, Kennedy quickly opened her own private practice.

In 1959, the firm successfully represented the great jazz singer Billie Holiday when the U.S. Attorney’s office threatened to indict her for “failing to register with the Customs Bureau before leaving on a European tour,” which was required under the Narcotics Control Act of 1956 for anyone convicted of narcotics possession. Kennedy continued to represent entertainers and their families, including Charlie Parker’s widow and Billie Holiday’s widower, and succeeded in winning their estates earnings retained by record and publishing companies.

Kennedy’s legal degree also served her growing involvement in political activism. She defended H. Rap Brown, chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, against charges that he incited a riot when he spoke to a crowd in Cambridge, Maryland in 1967, to give just one example. But Kennedy was skeptical of the courts as a path to justice, and she held fundraisers and organized demonstrations that mobilized support from a variety of groups.

Randolph calls Kennedy’s involvement in a wide range of organizations — from the Workers World Party and Youth Against War and Fascism, which opposed the Vietnam War, to Black Power, New Left, and the women’s movement — “promiscuous” and driven by a search “for a comprehensive political theory.” (95) Kennedy was deeply committed to their aims but critical of their failures to challenge all aspects of oppression, and actively worked to expand the scope of their activism when she found it lacking.

Concerned that antiwar organization were failing to address racism, for example, in 1966 Kennedy hosted a multi-racial panel of women activists on her weekly 30-minute radio program devoted to a discussion of “Black Power and the Growing White Power Backlash.” (102)

That same year, Kennedy attended a planning session for a national Black Power Conference, at which she co-chaired the panel on media. While Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders denounced Black Power “as a formula for increased white violence” because of their advocacy of “armed self-defense” the Black Power movement provided an alternative to Kennedy’s disillusionment with the legal system as a mechanism to challenge racism. (99)

Early in 1967, before the conference was held, Kennedy was present at the first meeting of the New York chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW). Certain that “the enemies” of Black Power and the women’s movement were “the same,” Kennedy insisted that the new organization should oppose the war and support Black Power. (101)

While Kennedy reported that Betty Friedan and others at the meeting looked at her as if she was “demented,” Kennedy continued to advance the idea that the fight against sexism was inextricable from that against racism and imperialism.

Friedan and other NOW members continued to reject Kennedy’s efforts to unite the feminist and Black Power movements, but her analysis deeply influenced others, most notably Ti-Grace Atkinson. When Atkinson attended the Black Power conference with her, Kennedy insisted that she remain, violating the rule excluding whites.

In 1968, Atkinson and Kennedy worked together in support of Valerie Solanas [leader and sole member of the “Society for Cutting Up Men” — ed.], who was on trial for the attempted murder of Andy Warhol, whom Solanas believed was one of several men trying cheat her out of publishing rights to her manuscripts.

While Kennedy and Atkinson, who had recently become the president of the NY chapter of NOW, promoted the political significance of Solanas’ violence in the media, Friedan insisted that they divorce their actions from the organization.

Despite such conflicts, Kennedy had a significant leadership role in many of the best-known actions associated with the women’s liberation movement, including the 1968 protest of the Miss America pageant. Not long after, Kennedy and Atkinson resigned from NOW to form the October 17th Movement, as their continuing efforts to push NOW in a more radical direction — in support of Black Power, the antiwar movement, and a more participatory style of leadership — were stymied. This moment is understood within feminist scholarship as foundational in the birth of radical feminism.

Reproductive Rights & Black Feminism

In outlining Kennedy’s role, Randolph restores the significance of Black feminist thought to the narrative. Under Atkinson’s leadership, the organization was renamed “The Feminists.” However as radical feminism became increasingly separatist, and less interested in coalition-building, Kennedy, along with other Black feminists, left the organization.

Randolph’s account of Kennedy’s role in the reproductive rights movement also restores the significance of Black feminist leadership within that struggle.

In 1966, a Black NY state assemblyman introduced the first bill that would have allowed a mental health exception to the law prohibiting abortion. While it failed, Shirley Chisholm, the Black feminist assemblywoman from Brooklyn, supported a similar bill the following year. It too failed, but Chisholm and others continued to press for changes in the law.

After several speak-outs on abortion in New York, Kennedy and other leading lawyers in Abramowicz v. Lefkowitz, which sought to repeal abortion laws in New York, determined to use the testimony of women who had suffered illegal abortions in their case rather than relying upon physicians and other experts. Abramowicz v Lefkowitz was the first case to used this tactic, which was later utilized in Roe v Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court case that legalized abortion nationwide.

The outcome of this case illustrated Kennedy’s conviction that the law could advance social change only in conjunction with activism. After massive demonstrations, some of which Kennedy played a role in organizing, the state legislature legalized abortion during the first 24 weeks of pregnancy, rendering the lawsuit moot.

In Abortion Rap, co-authored by Kennedy and Diane Schulder, another attorney in Abramowicz v. Lefkowitz, Kennedy challenged Black nationalist arguments that the birth control pill and abortion were a “white genocidal plot against black people.”(177)

Kennedy and other Black feminists helped define a position that expanded reproductive justice to encompass access to birth control, abortion and childcare as well as freedom from forced sterilization and poverty.
Kennedy’s leadership in framing the strategy to legalize abortion exemplifies the need for Black feminism, as neither mainstream nor radical feminism nor Black Power fully encompassed the unique needs and experiences of Black women. To address this, in 1973 Kennedy along with Margaret Sloan, Jane Galvin-Lewis and other Black feminists formed the National Black Feminist Organization.

 While this organization was short-lived, Kennedy continued to organize against racism, sexism and economic injustice throughout the 1980s and early ’90s until poor health sidelined her, and she died in 2000.

Inclusive Liberation

At the founding conference of the Women’s Loyal League in 1863, white abolitionist and women’s rights activist Angelina Grimke gave a speech in favor of a resolution demanding the “civil and political rights of all citizens of African descent and all women.” (Davis, 67)

Grimke said that the Civil War was not “a war of races, nor of sections, nor of political parties, but a war of Principles, a war upon the working classes, whether white or black.” In this speech, argues Angela Davis, Grimke “proposed a radical theory and practice which could have been realized through an alliance embracing labor, Black people and women.” (68, 69)

The potential for such an alliance, however, was shattered by the growing racism within the women’s rights movement.

A century later, Flo Kennedy worked toward a similar coalition, arguing that “we have a pathologically, institutionally racist, sexist, classist society. And that niggerizing techniques that are used don’t only damage black people, but they also damage women, gay people, ex-prison inmates, prostitutes, children, old people, handicapped people, Native Americans. And if we can begin to analyze the pathology of oppression… we would learn a lot about how to deal with it.” (1).

Perhaps we are now at another moment in which the opportunity to achieve the coalition that Grimke and Kennedy have called for might be formed. She would tell us, “don’t agonize. Organize.” (Steinem)

Works Cited

Davis, Angela, “Class and Race in the Early Women’s Rights Campaign,” in Women, Race & Class. NY: Vintage Books, 1983.

Steinem, Gloria, “The Verbal Karate of Florynce R. Kennedy, Esq.” Ms. Magazine Blog, August 19, 2011.

March-April 2017, ATC 187