Florynce “Flo” Kennedy, the charismatic feminist and Black Power activist and lawyer, was born 100 years ago today (February 11). While she is most often remembered as one of the few Black women who worked in the mostly White feminist movement of the 1960s and ’70s, Kennedy’s influence also flowed from her work within the New Left, Black Power, Civil Rights and autonomous Black Feminist movements.
Kennedy, who died in 2000, was infamous for her quick wit and outrageous street theater protests. For example, she gained media attention and recruited budding feminists when she threatened a “pee-in” to protest Harvard Law School’s lack of bathroom facilities for women. She helped to organize the 1968 Miss America protest in Atlantic City where women tossed ”instruments of female torture” such as bras, mops, girdles, pots and Playboy magazines into a giant garbage can.
In her less flamboyant work, Kennedy supported grassroots organizers in Mississippi’s voter registration campaign, was an early member of the National Organization for Women and co-organized the first National Black Power Conference. Her law clients included Billie Holiday, Assata Shakur and the feminist who shot Andy Warhol, Valerie Solanas.
Respected—and sometimes feared and disliked—for her intellect, charisma and blunt rhetoric, Kennedy allied with, debated and influenced many better-known radicals, including Adam Clayton Powell Jr., Shirley Chisholm, H. Rap Brown, William Kunstler and Betty Friedan. On what would have been her 100th birthday, here are a few of the rich, powerful and sometimes profane insights from Flo Kennedy.
On protesting and power:
“I am for any movement that is off its ass.”
“I can’t understand why a person would rather go on a ski slope than a picket line because I think a picket line just happens to be more fun, and the fact that it is politically astute is just a bonus.”
“Don’t agonize, organize.”
“You may not win the war…but you let them know that you are fighting a battle. I always say, if you spit on someone at a cocktail party you’re not trying to drown them; you just want to let them know you don’t like them.”
“Oppressed people have the power to be loud and draw a big crowd.”
“When you apply the right kind of pressure to the appropriate sensitive area, people become even more concerned than you are about your progress and happiness.”
On racism, imperialism, sexism and ageism:
“Everybody’s scared for their ass. There aren’t too many people ready to die for racism. They’ll kill for racism, but they won’t die for racism.”
“Fashion, style, language are the stuff of which societal reins on the oppressed are made. Grow a beard, wear a dashiki, say ‘shit’ or ‘fuck’ at the wrong time or place and you can get on the open-season-for-niggerizing list.”
“My main message is 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 [and] Native Americans. And that if we can begin to analyze the pathology of oppression…we would learn a lot about how to deal with it.”
“What [White] people don’t want to admit is that they are receivers of stolen property, and being receivers of stolen property, they should not be surprised that they are not loved.”
On reproductive freedom:
”If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.”
“There is no need for any legislation on abortion just as there is no need for legislation on an appendectomy.”
On the law and the courts:
“The law was used to maintain the bullshit rather than to change thing. …[Justice] was really a crock of shit.”
“Law is an one-ass-at-a-time-proposition, and what you really want to do is stop the wringer.”
On White feminists:
“[Black women] want to see [White] feminists come in where women are involved in the Black community, whether it is about a feminist issue or not. See that’s what they can understand and see getting together with.”
“Don’t try to recruit Black women into the women’s movement on the basis of sexism of the Black male. Recruit Black women by attacking the racism of White females.”
On Black Power and the Black freedom movement:
“Black Power may be the only hope America has.”
“I could understand feminism better because of the discrimination against Black people.”
On marriage and motherhood:
“Church controls the license to fuck. It’s called marriage.”
“I don’t believe in marriage, horizontal romance or religion, church, and/or the Bible; I love the hiccups, words and fighting.”
“Being a mother is a noble status, right? So why does it change when you put ‘unwed’ or ‘welfare’ in front of it?”
Sherie M. Randolph is the author of “Florynce ‘Flo’ Kennedy: The Life of a Black Feminist Radical.” She teaches African American Studies and History at the University of Michigan. She is currently serving as the Ella Baker Visiting Associate Professor of Black Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. The University of North Carolina Press is giving away 50 copies of the book. Click here to claim your copy.