Remembering Black Activist, Feminist And Kansas City Native Florynce 'Flo' Kennedy

Feb 28, 2017

Flo Kennedy.
Credit Courtesy of Sherie Randolph / sheriemrandolph.com

One day, about 20 years ago, Sherie Randolph was sitting on her couch, flipping through TV channels, when she saw something unusual.

It was footage from the 1960s or 1970s of a black woman in a cowboy hat chasing Daniel Patrick Moynihan and "calling him a racist sexist bastard," Randolph recalled.

"Of course, I knew who he was, but I didn't know who she was," Randolph told host Gina Kaufmann on KCUR's Central Standard.

Randolph turned to her friend sitting next to her and asked, "Who is that?"

And her friend, who had worked for Ms. Magazine, answered, "That's Flo Kennedy."

That started something of an obsession with Randolph, who is now an associate professor of history at the Georgia Institute of Technology, the co-director of the Black Feminist Think Tank and author of Florynce "Flo" Kennedy: The Life of a Radical Black Feminist.

"I think watching a black woman chase a white man and not be arrested was kind of exceptional," said Randolph.

Kennedy was chasing Moynihan in response to the Moynihan Report, which, said Randolph, called the black family unit pathological because of the black woman matriarch.

"And so I was intrigued with her forthright kind of criticism of him that's so direct it's not only in his face, it is literally in his face," she said.

Back in those early internet days, Randolph tried to collect some information about Kennedy, but the short entry in Black Women in America only listed her as an early member of the National Organization of Women.

As it turned out, Kennedy, a Kansas City native, was "hidden in plain sight." Randolph started talking to Kennedy's family. She also spent several years collecting Kennedy's papers. Kennedy was a founding member of NOW. She was also a Black Power activist.

"That's key about what I've discovered about her that I was so surprised about," Randolph said. "It sharpened her feminist analysis and her black feminist radicalism."

According to Randolph, Flo Kennedy was a lawyer in a time when most black women and men weren't lawyers. The Columbia Law School graduate was a legal advisor for the Panther 21, and later on, she was Assata Shakur's lawyer.

"She's really central, especially in New York and California, in helping to defend Black Power radicals," Randolph said.

She was also the lawyer for many jazz musicians, like Billie Holiday.

And she was one of the lead lawyers for Abramowicz v. Lefkowitz, the case that helped legalize abortion in New York. She helped devise the techniques that were later used in Roe v. Wade, such as using activist language in the courtroom.

Kennedy, who was also known for her striking style — wearing a cowboy hat or chaps, and always having a whistle — lived on Walrond Avenue in Kansas City. And even though she had black and white neighbors, her family pushed back against racism when people tried to kick them out of their home, said Randolph.

Her father, who was a waiter, started a successful taxicab company at 16th and Vine.

"She and her sisters were able to drive his taxi, which is unusual; that's like the equivalent of being able to fly a plane in today's thinking," said Randolph. "And so to be young black women driving ... going on dates, going to parties, going to see jazz musicians — that was very empowering for her and gave her a lot of mobility and freedom."

Kennedy went to segregated schools, but she got her early activist start as a high school student in the NAACP, protesting when the Coca-Cola bottling company wouldn't hire black drivers.

"Kansas City is central because that's when she first starts thinking about and pushing back against segregation," Randolph said.

Jen Chen is associate producer for KCUR's Central Standard. Reach out to her at jen@kcur.org.